Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp by Claude Debussy (1915)

The Jimmy Giuffre 3 photographed by William Claxton, an alternate shot of what was used on his first Atlantic LP

I've only recently (read as: last week) learned that Memorial Day here in the United States is also known as the unofficial start of Summer. Equinoxes aside, I guess I can accept this as it does make a certain amount sense. But what that means to me is not that I can start wearing white again, but rather that it is time to dig out the debut LP by the Jimmy Giuffre 3 on Atlantic Records. Recorded over the course of 2 sessions at Capitol Records Studios (possibly the Tower then in its first year of operation, but perhaps on December 3rd and 4th, 1956 in Los Angeles by reed player (and fellow Italian-American) Giuffre, Jim Hall (guitar) and Ralph Pena (bass), the LP gained its seasonal association for me due to my first exposure to "The Train and the River" as featured in Jazz on a Summer's Day (more on that one some other time). That aside, there is a warm breeze to the music that provides some aural hint of long sunny days. Something Los Angeles experiences more than many of us during the year perhaps, but at the very least there is vaguely something...well...Summery about the music.

For those of you who have not heard the original studio recording of the above mentioned classic, have a listen:

Every time I listen to this disc, I hear something more. Not only is it deep music but it swings like heck - even in the absence of a pianist or drummer. As I am want to do, I ended up spending a little time digging deeper into this topic. After retreading much of the same virtual ground online, I went to my bookshelf and reached for Ted Gioia's excellent West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960 from 1992. If you are a jazz head, dig those great West Coast sounds, and are looking to add to your Summer reading list, I cannot recommend this book enough. It's easily one of my favorite books written about jazz music. But (as usual) I digress. I recalled that Gioia devoted a chapter to Giuffre, which I re-read Monday morning. 

As well worn as my copy of West Coast Jazz is, it too is a work of art that always reveals a little something more every time I return to it. This time around concerned the origins Jimmy Giuffre 3. Giuffre is quoted by Gioia as having been inspired by Claude Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp in putting together this particular combo with himself, Pena, and Hall in the respective flute, viola, and harp roles. Debussy! Of course the great French Romantic composer's name is familiar to those who have dug a little deeper into modern jazz, everyone from Duke Ellington to Gil Evans to Charlie Parker expressed admiration or showed some influence. But what is unique in this instance is how a single piece of music - and a piece of chamber music at that - influenced the concept of an entire combo, and across genres at that. 

Debussy and his daughter near the end of his life (and her's) enjoying a picnic.

This particular piece is one of Debussy's later works: he would die of rectal cancer only 3 years after completing this sonata. As a composer and artist, Debussy is fascinating, not only for his music and for the time he emerged from, but for his deep appreciation of and influences by the visual arts. He was remarkably modern, employing musical devices that many of us still have not caught up with. Dissonance and whole-tone scales aside, he composed beautiful and challenging music which fortunately has experienced a fair amount of appreciation over the years and is accessible both via recorded works and usually wherever large symphony orchestras perform regularly. 

I will in no way claim to be an expert on his music - I am a casual admirer - but I must say that it is one of his more interesting and appealing pieces. I've probably listened to it half a dozen times today and it, too, continues to reveal its layers with each subsequent listen. I suspect this will continue to be the case for years to come. But for now I am content with the perfect soundtrack for an early-Summer morning. Sit back, put on a pair of headphones, or stream this through your home hi-fi and enjoy!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Allen Edmonds Kenwood (2011)

Let's talk about Allen Edmonds. More specifically, their current version of the classic beefroll loafer, named the Kenwood. They introduced the production model, made in their Port Washington, Wisconsin factory, a few years back. Initially, I was a real fence-sitter. The burgundy and black versions were only available in gentry (aka brush-off aka plasticized) leather and the shell cordovan was a bit out of reach for me. And the tan saddle version shown above? Well, let's just say that the online catalog photo was a bit underwhelming.

But as I so often I do: I kept circling back around the Kenwood. Why? Well so often is the case a musician is involved. You see, when I was 14 (more specifically the Summer of 1985) I made a very important connection between music and clothing. I not only wanted to play music like my emerging heroes, but I wanted to dress like them as well. Of course it helped that Los Angeles (the closest metropolis to my suburban digs) was experiencing the Paisley Underground and a good friend fell in a group of kids he referred to as mods. In short, it was the first step on a lifelong path of the shoes matching the sound, as it well.

But let me get back to the Kenwood. You see, I never really dug beefroll loafers. Sure sure, I knew they had their admirers and their place - my English friends seemed particularly fond of them - but they just did not do it for me. And then I saw this...

That's West Coast jazz and pop master guitarist Howard Roberts circa 1955 or so in the recording studio in Los Angeles. For my eyes this shot (photographer, unfortunately, unknown) matches Francis Wolff's later celebrated Blue Note photographs in every way. It is just plain cool. But don't smoke, kids. Seriously. Most importantly with regards to this post, let's take a cue from my pal, Mod Male, and focus in on a detail...

Yes a beefroll loafer, probably black, replete with a rear seam detail that I had only seldom seen on examples of these shoes. OK, so maybe these shoes were alright after all. Fast forward to when I first saw the Kenwood, some of the details of the shoe appealed to me thanks to Mr. Roberts, namely the rear seam. But the Kenwood had another detail that appealed to me: the pinked edge of the tongue. And there was something about it that reminded me of another photo I had seen.

Miles Davis, photographed by the aforementioned Francis Wolff at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in Hackensack, New Jersey on March 6, 1954. Again, we can take a look at a detail up close...

While not as pronounced as the Allen Edmonds model, there is the pinked edge that had caught my eye. Very likely a tan saddle pair as well. And while we are at it, nice sock/trouser contrasts both in terms of color tone and fabrics. And while 1954 marked the beginning of Davis's adoption of Ivy League as part of his sartorial style (something I have written about a greater length elsewhere on this very same weblog), he was photographed 6 months earlier wearing what is most likely the same pair of shoes...

Chet Baker, Miles Davis, and Rolf Ericson photographed on September 13, 1953 at The Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach, California. Miles had kicked his habit and took a road trip to the Coast where he jammed with Baker and Ericson alongside his bandmate from the Charlie Parker Quintet days, Max Roach. By the way, a recording of this session was released decades later by Fantasy/OJC as At Last! And Miles's tan beefrolls were there...

So when I happened into the Allen Edmonds shop in Union Square last year during one of their semi-annual sales and saw the Kenwoods up close and personal, my perception had shifted enough to encourage me to try on a pair of the tan saddles. No gentry leather, decent looking, USA-made. Perhaps I could warm to these. Admittedly the slightly burnished look still left me a bit cold, but I was in the mood for something different and the price was right so I gave them a shot.

The verdict? Well, I've had a uneasy 8 month relationship with the shoes. On the plus side, they are sharp as a tack. The color was much more versatile than I had suspected. In fact, a couple of trips to A Shine & Co. (don't tell my tailor that I get my shoes shined - it's a long story) and several coats of Meltonian goldenrod shoe cream and the richness of the leather has really come to life. On the flip side, I broke a heel within a few weeks of owning the shoes. A simple repair for sure, but not terribly encouraging for my first Allen Edmonds experience. I should also say that they stretched rather quickly resulting in a not too pleasant fit for my 10.5 E feet. I've since solved that issue by wearing a pair of thick Wigwams or a cotton liner sock, but again somewhat rough seas for my maiden voyage with the shoemaker. Still, my Father swears by Allen Edmonds, so I will give them some more time. As for a recommendation? Well, I can only give a highly qualified one and I would love to hear about your Allen Edmonds experiences in the comments section below.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

You Never Forget Your First Time (1984)

Yes, there IS a first time for everything. This week, for the first time, I am featuring a guest piece here on what has been a personal endeavor. Jimmy Frost Mellor, main man of the Talk Ivy Forum, shares with us some of his memories of one of the icons of The Look. I am also debuting my new weekly publishing schedule, namely Tuesday 07:01 ante meridian, Pacific Time. Yes, this means you can expect regular posts here on A Modernist in the coming weeks. See you next Tuesday.  

"Kensington High Street, October 1984. Rain. And not just any old rain either, this was that very specific London rain that comes down grey and soaks you to the skin within seconds. But I was in a good mood. As far as I was concerned, the sun was shining and the birds were singing because I was going to a shop called Meenies where I had just heard they had discounted Bass Weejuns on sale.

I was broke, as always back then, but I still had to have some. I'd only just learned about them after spending years wearing English loafers that just didn't look quite right to one obsessed with the American look. And Weejuns didn't disappoint.

The shoe department was in the basement of Meenies and they were operating on a pile them high and sell them cheap basis so the first sight that greeted me at the bottom of the stairs was quite literally a wall of Weejuns. Shoe boxes stacked like bricks filling the wall ahead with a few display pairs dotted about here and there around the shop.

Maybe it was the London weather stirring up the atmosphere or maybe it was my senses heightened with the anticipation of getting my hands on these legendary imported loafers, but the smell of leather was wonderful down there. That rich, intoxicating smell that all shoe fanatics love...

Best of all: the place was deserted! A shoplifter's paradise in retrospect, but that never occurred to me I was so keen to start trying on loafers. They had the Penny and the Tassel styles only, in black or something like the colour of dried blood that I was later to learn they called 'wine'. Wine looked uber-Ivy to me and I loved them on sight, but my finances were restricted and I always needed to justify my purchases to myself by buying things I would get the most wear out of back then. This line of thinking also delayed me buying a much-coveted pink buttondown for ages also. So I went for the black Penny Weejun as my entry into the life of a London Weejunaire, but spent ages looking at the wine Weejuns and planning ahead. If I only ever ate once a day, how soon would it be before I could get a pair?

Americans are often amazed and bemused when English Ivy League fans go into rhapsodies about the style and design of the basic Bass Weejun Penny Loafer. To them it's so commonplace that they barely register it at all. But not in London. In London they were different, but not obviously so. Just the right look to blend in and yet stand out: the ethos which is at the heart of the Ivy League style in London.

First came that snub, rounded toe. Then the 'pie crust' gathered stitching on the vamp which was so alien to traditional English shoemakers What were these shoes? Bedroom slipper moccasins presented as being dress shoes? Brilliant! What a bolt from the clear, new, brave blue in this grey and rainy city. They're smart, but they are a brand new smart which comes from Another Country. Here's my credit card...

Still to this day only a very few certain London shops have Weejuns. From Meenies I graduated to The Natural Shoe Store in Chelsea and Covent Garden before I discovered John Simons in 1985 and a much wider world of Weejuns beyond just the basics that all the rest offered. Today I buy all my Weejuns there. But not often...Style lasts!"

- Jimmy Frost Mellor, May 2012

Editor's Footnote: the above advertisements are from 1951, 1960, and 1965 respectively.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Bell Book and Candle (1958)

If Richard Quine's 1958 film, Bell Book and Candle, had starred a different pair of lead actors it quite likely would not have been somewhat doomed to obscurity. But as it was the second 1958 pairing of James Stewart and Kim Novac released nearly 8 months after Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, it has not received the same re-evaluation that Hitch's now broadly praised classic has. Oddly enough, Bell Book and Candle, received more notoriety at the time of release garnering a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture (Comedy) as well as two minor Academy Award nominations. Vertigo, somewhat famously, was met with a lukewarm popular and critical reception upon its release. As we all know, the retrospective view changed significantly.

So what about Bell Book and Candle? Well, I could bore you with a plot synopsis, but let's just watch the original trailer and dispense with that formality, shall we?

In short, it's a wonderfully entertaining way to spend 106 minutes of your time. Originally a stage play, the 1950 Broadway run borrowed its plot-line somewhat from a 1942 Fredric March/Veronica Lake film vehicle, I Married a Witch. Stewart and Novak carry the film well, of course. But, for me, it's the supporting cast and some of the production details that really appeal to me.

Ernie Kovacs, in many ways the first modern American comedian, had a profound influence on both television and comedy. If you are not hip to him, you should be. Fortunately, he is well represented on YouTube. He is more poorly represented in cinema, which make his performance here all that much more welcome.

Playing Novac's warlock-of-a-brother (Did I mention Novak portrays a witch? No? You're right, I didn't. Scroll back up and watch the trailer already!) is the late, great Jack Lemmon. I could (and have) wax poetic on Lemmon as he really is one of my favorite actors from this era. But the fact that he portrays a bongo-beating, Ivy League-styled (flannel suits, bow ties abound - yes, Lemmon again proves himself to be one of the foremost exponents of what is now called "Hollywood Ivy") fellow named Nicky in this film earns this role a special place in my heart. Nicky makes his first appearance as part of the jazz combo in the fictional Zodiac Club set in Greenwich Village. No, I am not making this up and, yes, it's one of those cinematic high points for me. Here's the scene in its entirety:

Rounding out the Zodiac combo are brothers Pete and Conte Candoli on trumpets and Elek Bacsik on guitar. The Candolis should be very familiar to jazz heads as they played for a variety of orchestras in the 1940s and 1950s before settling into to steady studio work in LA in that latter decade. Bacsik is significantly more obscure. A Romani Hungarian musician and cousin to Django Reinhardt, this film was probably his first introduction to American audiences (although his appearance on record with Dizzy Gillespie 4 years later most likely helped him reach more jazz fans). By the way, the French singer onstage when Stewart and his on-screen fiancé enter the club is Phillipe Clay a singer, mime, and character actor.

Support your local video rental merchant today, rent Bell Book and Candle tonite!