My first week back in a rainy Paris. The large old style windows in the bathroom are frosted a milky white. Below they look out onto the courtyard and above similar windows with their boxes of Geraniums drooping their heads in this heavy rain.
There is something hypnotic about how the lone light over the entrance to the courtyard door, used to lead one out of the courtyard, is diffused through the panes.
I can not just hang out in here, it is odd, so I take baths. Forever in my mind’s eye, I want to capture the dreamlike light, a shimmering grey dusk.
I rest the radio on a pile of towels, not too near the tub. I read Gautier while Poulenc plays. She pokes her head in the door to see if I had seen one of the dominos which had escaped from the box last night. Under water, I shrug my shoulders.
She listens to the music for a moment.
"Careful, you will mix your metaphors."
A lot of the great American songbook and indeed a large part of early cabaret seemed to effortlessly mix high art with a crowd pleasing populist bent. Humable tunes mixed with lyrics which encompassed social commentary yet, could pass for poetry.
Initially cabarets were like a café, but with more of a leaning towards alcohol. The twin birthplaces were Germany and Paris. Café culture seemed to start in both places simultaneously although with decidedly different flavors emanating from each place.
Right before and immediately preceding both wars, émigrés from all over Europe converged on Paris. Bringing their music, their poetry and different ethno-national takes on the current world situation.
Le Chat Noir in Montmartre (Paris) was a saloon descended from the type of small venue in which some of the romantic era artists would have given readings of their poems, tried out some of their smaller musical pieces or maybe even displayed a painting or two.
Le Chat Noir, unlike its predecessors though, gave off a more relaxed vibe. There was an exchange of ideas, an artistic cross pollination. With the inexpensive price of drinks, the live entertainment and the peasant stews usually bubbling on the stove it attracted not just artists, but a ready made audience of workers as well.
The small, intimate seating combined with an atmosphere more casual than what was to be found at the theater was one of the initial appeals of what would become known as cabaret.
At first, composers such as Debussy would play songs and works which, while written for smaller venues, still had the more formal sheen of respectability and a night at the theater. After World War I , the Weimar Republic (Germany) was a hot house of artistic freedom. A freedom which lasted up until change in the political climate and an oppressive regime, with policies which followed suit.
Cabaret was still loose, sexy and fun but a more satirical aspect crept in too. There were still image rich lyrics, but also some social commentary.
In Germany Kurt Weil began a successful collaboration with author/playwright Bertolt Brecht. They poked fun at the battle of the sexes, the seven deadly sins and all the other foibles of modern day man.
While in Paris a group of young, like-minded composers dubbed Le Six (Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honneger, Louis Durey, Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric) began their careers which had gestated from within the walls of a cabaret.
Technically speaking, Weil/Brecht wrote mainly operas while Le Six wrote ballets, chamber music and symphonies. All these artists though, started in cabarets and even when not writing in the strictest definition of the word, cabaret songs, would often keep the stripped down instrumentation so often a prerequisite for the small stages of a cabaret.
There was in common too, the mix in lyrics between the literate and the things to be found in every day existence. Poetic words used to describe the heartache we all must experience, sung by but a few voices and accompanied by accordion and maybe a clarinet.
Cabarets would start to pop up in America as well during the early decades of the 1900’s. They quickly morphed however, sacrificing some of their intimacy for large dance floors on which one must be seen. There was music still, but it contained none of the socio-political elements to be found in the European artistic forbearers.
The Volstead act (prohibition) made selling alcohol illegal and was the death knell, at least temporarily, for America’s large clubs. This birthed the speakeasies which were smaller and closer in spirit to Europe’s cabarets. The silhouette of a tiarra’d woman lamenting the blues was a great distraction from the low quality of the bathtub gin patrons would overpay for the privilege to secretly drink.
After prohibition was the great depression, but the big cities in America wanted to celebrate, in denial. The Big clubs were back, cabaret’s rich relatives, referred to as a "supper club". The female singers were the same, although they must have felt out of place among so many glamorous penguins with their bejeweled wives or mistresses on their arms.
During this time, over in Europe were variations on all these types of nocturnal entertainment, from the cabarets which harkened back to its original conception to a more American concept, big clubs with overly iced Whisky Campbells.
Cabaret continued to morph, drawing from its past while also embracing the vernacular of a changing world both musically and lyrically. Kurt Weil, fleeing Nazi Germany would end up in the United States writing successful Broadway shows and some more of what could be considered cabaret songs.
Genres began to blur, torch song, saloon song, jazz singer. What was the difference and did it matter? The best art forms do not exist in a vacuum but draw from all which preceded it and what is current. In this way, cabaret at its best had much in common with jazz. Somewhere along the way though, cabaret lost something. There are still some good singers, but the overall genre itself brings forth to the layman, images of former music theater majors over-singing Gershwin a la American Idol to old ladies taking a break from the nickel slots. Cabaret has become in most people’s minds interchangeable with the more loathsome "dinner theater" genre just as the public often confuses the genre names of Cool Jazz (West Coast) with the Kenny G type of Smooth Jazz.
Yet, if one looks hard enough there are singers worth discovering and song writers who are, artistically directly descended from the initial intent of cabaret.
I have been lucky to discover recently both, combined together in one project.
Like the word genius, "Renaissance Man" is often over used. However, Oscar Brown Jr fits the description perfectly.
Oscar Brown Jr, (1926-2005) ever his own man, would have more in common with the European cabaret tradition than initial appearance would lead one to believe.
Oscar’s emotional and intellectual make up were very much formed from his experiences as an African American, but to some extent his music transcends issues of race alone. His song "’Bid Em In" about a slave auction can effect a person of any color or class much as Kurt Weil’s chamber maid Jenny’s longing for an account of her bosses in "Red Sails". Both too, share socially relevant message peppered with a wry humor. Oscar always managed to inform while also entertaining and never letting his art become merely rhetoric. In his art, his disenfranchised could be of any color.
His political activism alternated with songs about his children, about men and woman together, apart and yearning for what they do not have. A similar approach to cabaret and troubadours in the best sense of the tradition. Also like Kurt Weil and members of Le Six, Oscar drew upon many musical genres, incorporating them into his art to forge something familiar yet new.
Into his sonic crucible could be found elements of jazz, early blues-folk and aspects of protest songs.
The delivery too had much in common with the cabaret. Here were worlds and people vividly brought to into existence, their joys and pains experienced all within the life of a song. He had an actors ability to switch emotional gears with the cadence of his voice and a jazz musicians sense of timing.
Oscar’s mother was a teacher. His father was a successful lawyer and property broker who wanted his son to follow in his footsteps.
From an early age Oscar showed an interest in the written word. In grade school he was double promoted, starting the University of Wisconsin at the age of sixteen. It was also during this time Oscar performed on the radio show "Secret City".
School could not hold his interest and he was soon back home.
He found himself returning to the world of radio broadcasting, hosting the Negro News front, often being citied as the nations first African American news caster.
Ironically, he was sometimes considered too controversial by a show whose very nature and existence was hotly debated in some parts of the country.
Oscar left radio for a foray into politics, running for Illinois legislator (1948). While it was a failed bid, it began a lifelong participation in politics which also included a run for a state senate position under the Republican party.
In the future his politics would sometimes become less formalized, but at the root were always a concern for the rights and dignity of the working class and minorities.
His interest in the condition of the working class and desire to make everything equal and better for all was also shown by joining the communist party. An affiliation which lasted some ten years, ending with his famous quip:
"I was too black to be red."
All during his political activities and radio days Oscar had continued to write. He wrote songs, plays and prose.
He was neighbors with "A Raisin in the Sun" playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Through her he met Robert Nemiroff, her husband, who was a music publisher and early supporter of Oscar’s songs.
Initially, Oscar shopped his songs around, hoping for someone else to sing them. Columbia Records offered a contract, wanting to sign Oscar not as a songwriter, but a singer.
Although he sat on the offer for a year, he did eventually sign. During this time he would appear on Max Roach’s civil rights album "Freedom Now Suite".
His initial Columbia album "Sin and Soul" contained one of his most powerful songs "Bid ‘Em In" along with modern jazz instrumental standards to which he added lyrics and vocals to great effect (Bobby Timmons "’Dat Dere" and Mongo Santamaria’s "Afro Blue").
The songs were sung, but also because of his background in radio and his own innate abilities, acted. His songs were now being covered by other singers (Lena Horn, Mahalia Jackson et al).
He began to play some of jazz’s hallowed halls (Village Vangard, The Jazz Workshop). Using the exposure he was garnering and feeding off the excitement, he wrote a musical "Kicks and Company" (1961). Like some of the best modern theater/musicals, songs from "Kicks.." all go together to form a larger picture, but can also be enjoyed singularly.
The need for finances was a catalyst for this play becoming a broadcasting first and last when at the invitation of Today Show host Dave Garroway, Oscar was allowed to take over the full two hours to raise funds for his show.
The show received mixed reviews only being more appreciated now, when looked back on through the lens of time.
Oscar was not forever reinventing himself, but as a man and as an artist, constantly evolving adding to his palette even as he added to his output. His body of work is widely varied. Not made up of "good" and "bad", but encompassing change and growth while still retaining the familiar voice of the artist. He would write more plays, incorporate Brazilian music, seventies funk inflections, work with inner city youth gangs, write, act and of course sing.
Towards the end of his life he seemed to have been discovered by a new generation of fans through things like appearances on Russell Simmon’s Def Poetry and appearances with his daughter Maggie, also an accomplished singer.
Linda Kosut was born in New York where she studied piano and dance at an early age. Like many modern day artists she had to turn to the business world for her daily bread, yet never stopping her musical studies. The mid 90’s found her publicly performing again, getting back into the stream of things at open mic nights and piano bars. A 2003 album "Life is But a Dream" was voted one of the top female vocalist recordings that year by Cabaret Hotline Online in New York.
Three years later she founded The Kitchenettes, an ensemble who sing about delights both gastronomical and of the heart. They toured San Francisco and Italy. On her own Linda traveled, performing her show about following one’s bliss, "My Own Kind Of Hat".
"Long as You’re Living" is the new CD by Linda Kosut. It encompasses a cross section of the work of Oscar Brown. One of the many compelling aspects of this CD is that it does not merely present all the familiar songs, there are some penned later in Oscar’s career which even an established fan may not know. Although this is not the first major work in her oeuvre, Linda initially encountered his work as a young girl in the 60’s and the thrill of that discovery has stayed with her through the years. The project came about when originally she was searching for the lead sheet for one song, "Humdrum Blues". An unexpected "yes" from the publisher led to the formation of a full fledged show. In her research, Linda started a correspondence with Maggie Brown, Oscar’s daughter. Maggie gave the show her blessing and the two have since performed together also appearing on the morning television show "View From The Bay". (Nov. 16, 2007)
This album is almost like a collaboration, Linda’s voice is definitely one of the stars of the show, yet Oscar’s personality is ever present. His lyrical intent is never lost or buried even as Linda manages to artistically sit by his side. Is she a cabaret singer? The semantics of such a thing are a moot point. She is a singer of great ability who could sing cabaret (proper traditional) too. A simple thing which I found impressive is the organic strength of her voice which is deftly wielded so that she can handle complicated passages without any dead spaces being created from having to rein back.
There are many highlights on this CD. The first track "A Tree and Me" has the narrator mixing his ashes with a sapling tree in lieu of a headstone. The song has a melancholy beauty and should be heard by anyone who would write off Oscar as merely an afro-centric artist. Lyrically too, this song is perhaps a good metaphor for Oscar’s art and jazz in general, the ashes of one generation providing for growth of the next. The song is the perfect introduction to the sonic delights to be found on this album.
A lot of contemporary vocal albums have either the voice way too far up front or to compensate, everything is blaring, coming at you all at once. Here, there is a delicate layering of instruments and vocals. The soft tinkling of Max Perkoff on piano with a rich bass bowing, a chamber music like tinge, from Tom Shader. Aside from painting lyrical pictures, the voice here is treated as another instrument. There is also none of the frigid digital perfection that can make it sound like everyone came in at different times to record their parts. Towards the end of the piece Paul Van Wageningen provides the rain like patter of the cymbals, wrapping themselves around the voice without any danger of distraction. There are some drummers who can play soft and delicate, others who swing madly. Paul effortlessly can change gears adding to the emotional landscape of each piece regardless of tempo and timber.
The album is not a concept album embodying the linear view of only one story, but a theme one. There is a perfect balance in the programming of the songs’ orders. The slower tempo and melancholy bent of the first song gives way to the quicker paced "Mr. Kicks". The varied feel of each song keeps the album from ever becoming dull, yet taken all together they form a coherent picture of two artists’ distinct voices. "Mr. Kicks" is a deceptively happy song and following in a long tradition, presents temptation and the devil as sexy and fun even as you are being warned.
My favorite track on the album is "Hazel’s Hips". A bluesy tempo valentine to a waitress whose appeal makes the narrator eat "six meals a day in a crummy café" just to see her shapely charms. Linda’s voice shows its strength here in such a subtle way that upon first listen it is deceptively simple in how she uses it to convey romance combined with a more earthy heat. The trombone is the come hither of Hazel but also the panting of a lunchtime crowd completely under her spell. Throughout the album the bass changes its cadence, here it thickly bubbles. A big man humming the blues as the story unfolds.
"The Snake" starts with a muted horn playing in a hot jazz mode with the cymbals acting as the dancers. Lyrically it is a variation on the folk tale of the scorpion and the frog at the river (it doesn’t end well for any concerned). Here Linda demonstrates, much as Oscar used to, the ability to act the story from within the confines of a song.
There have been many treatments of the music of Thelonious Monk and modern jazz standards in general. Unlike some cases, here the added vocals to the Monk standard "Round Midnight" do not seem superfluous. The lyrics, initially a weary requiem for the end of day. Half way through the piece, the piano pulses and the Oscar Brown poem "The Beach" is recited, seamlessly integrated into the body of the song. A lament for friends and a generation gone, storming a beach which is the youth of us all. Each generation, despite our victories, is destined to fall to age, time, the winner always in a fatal game.
The CD is forty seven minutes long. A mark of a good album is how abstract one’s sense of time becomes while listening, the album seems neither too short nor too long. The sound quality, while completely possessing the (for me) important organic quality, is pristine. The liner notes are brief and by Linda. The band is small, a trio with Max doubling up on piano and trombone, and containing no weak links. Tom’s bass manages to have a distinctive voice, yet like the cadence heard over the course of a good conversation, it changes from piece to piece. Both Max and Paul I have seen in different ensembles. Without submerging any of their identity, both here have further expanded their palettes bringing something different to the table.
"Old Lover’s Song" sounded familiar to me. Trying to recall where I had heard the melody was like an itch I could not scratch. It is a Jacques Brel song. Lyrically, it is a couple with a history, grown comfortable with their battle, the battle of the sexes and the suspicion that the fight might very well be part of their life long courting.. Here it is sung in English with a brief refrain in French. Jacques Brel, like Oscar wore many hats. The inclusion of this song reiterates what we should all learn; good music need know no color; and troubadour, cabaret et al, the only music labels which matter are good and bad.
Long As You’re Living: The Songs & Poetry of Oscar Brown JR
Max Perkoff- piano, trombone
Paul Van Wageningen-percussion
-Maxwell will return with more adventures in sound-