Saturday, October 18, 2014

Julie and Japan

I don't know whether to be proud or sad that an article I wrote about Julie ("She Just Singsand Swings the Song and Goes Home) London appeared, in translation, in the very last edition (6/2010) of that venerated (founded 1947) Japanese jazz mag,  Swing Journal. ("Will the last Swing Journal writer please turn out the lights and close the door behind you.") Was it something that I said (wrote)?

My guess is that SJ didn't necessarily close down because business was allll that bad. Methinks they just saw the handwriting on the wall and wanted to get out while the getting was good. Such a venerated Japanese institution!, SJ's demise was nearly analogous to what it would be like if the New Yorker ever folded in the U.S. To actually get paid for writing about one of my most favorite singers in my favorite mag in my fave foreign locale! Some people have all the luck. In this instance, it was I! Here is the English language original:

Considering that  Julie London (1926-2000) is one of the foremost jazz interpreters of American Popular Song, there is surprisingly little information available about the actual production of her recordings. Although the backing she received on many of her releases is in-the-pocket jazz, on the vast majority of them, the liner notes identify neither the arranger or the musicians. Not even the great also saxophonist Benny Carter, clearly recognizable on her "Julie" album---that's the one where she's clad in a skimpy nightie reclining in a transparent butterfly chair---is credited.  In the 1950s, London was noted more for cleavage-driven record jacket photos than for her first-rate vocal skills. Perhaps that is why the management at London's label, Liberty, were wary of listing personnel on her albums, lest her sex bomb image be sullied by the merest suggestion she might actually be a first rate  jazz singer in the bargain. Think Mood Music, instead.

Not that all of her albums are devoid of personnel. A few contain partial listings, and those who made the cut over the span of London's 34-album catalog, include: Jimmy Rowles, Howard Roberts, Andre Previn, Barney Kessel, Gerald Wilson, Bud Shank. And, most significantly bassist-arranger-conductor Don Bagley. And that is because, he appears in one capacity or other on nearly every London recording made between 1960 and right on up to the very end, He does not recall, however, working with London on her 1969 album Yummy, Yummy, Yummy. Understandable, because, this one, her last studio affair, is one of the singer’s few recordings that is, perhaps, best passed over in silence.

I first spoke with Bagley when I phoned him up for a few pieces of discographical information for a Japanese jazz critic friend of mine. He was very helpful, and after a few more minutes of conversation, it was apparent that here was the go-to guy regarding London’s post-1964 studio and live performance activities. And so I made an appointment to sit down and talk with him at his Northridge, CA home in mid-May.

Aside from his musical alliance with London, clearly the longest of his career, the Utah-born musician has worked on extensive basis with the diverse likes of Stan Kenton and Burt Bacharach, and with hundreds of shorter stops along the way for such as Nat ‘’King” Cole, Lars Gullin, Frank Rosolino and Zoot Sims. He has also composed and arranged extensively for movies and TV.

“I first became involved with Bobby Troup in the late fifties,” Bagley recalls. “Troup and Julie had not gotten married yet. He had a TV show, Stars of Jazz, and he was working places around L.A. and I started working clubs with him and got to know Julie. I think I first recorded with her on the  At Home album in 1960.” And yes, Bagley tells me, the album really was recorded at Julie and Bobby’s house.

“When we did Julie at Home, we had a few drinks, dinner, then we recorded. She just loved the musicians.”

At one point in my interview, I tell Bagley my theory as to why there is little hard core discographical information on the back of the album, i.e. that Liberty was trying to “disguise” what were essentially jazz albums as easy listening or mood music albums and he agrees, adding:

“She liked Jimmy Rowles a lot, On the sessions we’d have the very best guys. The Condoli brothers, Bud Shank, Bob Copper, Jack Nimitz. She had been a big fan of the Kenton band. Knew all the guys who were with that band when I was.”

At first, when Bagley began working “on the road” with London, her group consisted of guitar, drum, bass and trumpet.

“But Julie decided she wanted to start playing more Vegas-type places and so we began planning those kinds of shows, which included a big band, a vocal group. She loved the Four Freshmen, so she hired Ken Albers, who was one of the Freshmen, to write the vocal charts. The singers traveled with us. That was leading up to the Americana in 1964. We also worked Vegas, Tahoe, Puerto Rico, Australia, Japan with the big band.”

Bagley did the arrangements, conducted, and rehearsed the band, along with playing bass, too. “I was the guy who established the tempos, got the band off. I was the musical director.”

London’s respect, admiration and love of musicians was a thread that ran throughout my conversation with the musician. This became especially apparent after the singer began touring with the expanded format of a big band.

“I remember one time,“ the bassist fondly recalls, “we went to Miami. It was one of those big hotels run by the mob but with an ostensible front man posing as the owner. This guy sent word to the dressing room, ‘Mister so and so would like to have dinner with Julie after the show.’ And she said, ‘What about my musicians?’ Meaning her four key people. And they said, ‘It’s principals only.’ And she said, 'You tell Mister so and so, I will have dinner with the musicians instead.' And she did!’

But London still depended on guitar, even with the big band, Bagley says. There were always a few spots in the show that used just guitar, bass accompaniment, especially in the recreation of the singer’s patented Julie is Her Name “sound.” Over the years, London had had all the great players, Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts, et al

“But when we got to New York for the Hotel America date, the hotel’s band guitarist was a disappointment, and it just didn’t work for her. I had been with Sal Salvador on Kenton’s band and he was in New York and I called him and asked him if he would do the job. He agreed to do it, but one night, he had to send a substitute, and it was Bucky Pizzarelli. Julie never got over how great Bucky played for her. But it’s Sal Salvador on the album that was recorded there.”

It must have been especially heartening to London when she, Troup, and her core group of players touched down in Japan in 1964 for their first of two visits there (the other was in 1966) and management’s concern, unlike Miami, extended beyond just the star herself.

“I remember how great Tats Nagashima, the booker, was. He was the booker for high-priced talent in Japan at the time. He treated everybody just royally. Not only Julie, but the musicians. He took us out to dinner every night for Kobe beef.  We had a Mercedes downstairs 24 hours a day with a driver. I was with Julie on both tours.”

This was, of course, in keeping with London’s dealings with her musicians. “She treated the musicians so well,“ says Bagley. “If we gave her a price, she’d go higher. We always got paid up front. We were family when we went to the house.” And again he repeated,   “She just loved the musicians.” It’s no surprise, then, that the long-time career musician pauses a moment, then adds, “Julie London was the best boss I ever had.” 

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