All posts by jesswaid

About jesswaid

Currently, I write police procedural novels with the stories taking place in Hollywood during the early 1960s; a period when I was a street cop there. I've moved to Mexico to be closer to my hobby of studying Mexican history. My friend and fellow author, Professor Michael Hogan, is my mentor. I am planning to write a three-part epic story that takes place in the mid-nineteenth century. What has inspired me was hearing about Los Ninos Heroes, martyrs of the Battle of Chapultepec. Also, my father was born in Concordia, Mexico and knowing his family history is an added incentive.

Duke Ellington

 

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Duke Ellington influenced millions of people, around the world and at home. He gave American music its own sound for the first time. In his fifty year career, he played over 20,000 performances in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia.

Ellington’s legacy transcends boundaries and fills the world with a treasure trove of music that renews itself through every generation of fans and music-lovers. His work continues to live on, and will endure for generations to come. Winton Marsalis put it best when he said, “His music sounds like America.” Because of the unmatched artistic heights to which he soared, no one deserved the phrase “beyond category” more than Ellington, for it aptly describes his life as well. He was most certainly one of a kind, a man who led a life with universal appeal and a style that transcended countless boundaries.

Duke Ellington is best remembered for the over 3,000 songs  he composed during his lifetime. His best known titles include, “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Mood Indigo,” “Solitude,” “In a Mellotone,” and “Satin Doll.” As a musician, he was most creative while on the road. It was during this time when he wrote his most famous piece, “Mood Indigo”which brought him world wide fame.

When asked what inspired him to write, Ellington replied, “My men and my race are the inspiration of my work. I try to catch the character and mood and feeling of my people.”

Duke Ellington’s popular compositions set the bar for generations of brilliant jazz, pop, theatre, and soundtrack composers to come. While these compositions guarantee his greatness, what made Duke an iconoclastic genius, and an unparalleled visionary, what has granted him immortality, are his extended suites. From 1943’s “Black, Brown and Beige,” to 1972’s “The Uwis Suite,” Duke used the suite format to give his jazz songs a far more empowering meaning, with enhanced resonance and purpose. They exalt, mythologize, and re-contextualize the African-American experience on a grand scale.

Duke Ellington was partial to giving brief verbal accounts of the moods his songs captured. Reading those accounts is like looking deep into the background of an old photo of New York, and noticing the lost and almost unaccountable details that gave the city its character during Ellington’s heyday, which began in 1927 when his band made the Cotton Club its home. ”The memory of things gone,” Ellington once said, ”is important to a jazz musician,” and the stories he sometimes told about his songs are the record of those bygone days. But what is gone returns, its pulse kicking, anytime Ellington’s music is played — the music still carries us forward today.

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Duke Ellington was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966. He was later awarded several other prizes, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, and the French Legion of Honor in 1973, the highest civilian honors in each country. He died of lung cancer and pneumonia on May 24, 1974, a month after his 75th birthday, and is buried in the Bronx, in New York City. At his funeral, attended by over 12,000 people at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Ella Fitzgerald summed up the occasion, “It’s a very sad day…A genius has passed.”

Danny Kaye

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Danny Kaye (born David Daniel Kaminsky; January 18, 1913 – March 3, 1987) was an American actor, singer, dancer, and comedian. His performances featured physical comedy, idiosyncratic pantomimes, and rapid-fire nonsense songs.

Kaye starred in 17 movies, notably The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), The Inspector General (1949), Hans Christian Andersen (1952), White Christmas (1954), and The Court Jester (1956). His films were popular, especially his bravura performances of patter songs and favorites such as “Inchworm” and “The Ugly Duckling.” He was the first ambassador-at-large of UNICEF in 1954 and received the French Legion of Honor in 1986 for his years of work with the organization.

Early years

David Daniel Kaminsky was born to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn. Jacob and Clara Nemerovsky Kaminsky and their two sons, Larry and Mac, left Yekaterinoslav two years before his birth; he was the only son born in the United States. He spent his early youth attending Public School 149 in East New York, Brooklyn—which eventually was renamed to honor him—where he began entertaining his classmates with songs and jokes, before moving to Thomas Jefferson High School, though he never graduated. His mother died when he was in his early teens. Clara enjoyed the impressions and humor of her son and always had words of encouragement; her death was a loss for the young Kaye.

Not long after his mother’s death, Kaye and his friend Louis ran away to Florida. Kaye sang while Louis played the guitar; the pair eked out a living for a while. When Kaye returned to New York, his father did not pressure him to return to school or work, giving his son the chance to mature and discover his own abilities. Kaye said he had wanted to be a surgeon as a young boy, but there was no chance of the family affording a medical-school education. He held a succession of jobs after leaving school, as a soda jerk, insurance investigator, and office clerk. Most ended with his being fired. He lost the insurance job when he made an error that cost the insurance company $40,000. The dentist who hired him to look after his office at lunch hour did the same when he found Kaye using his drill on the office woodwork. He learned his trade in his teenage years in the Catskills as a tummler in the Borscht Belt, and for four seasons at the White Roe resort.

Kaye’s first break came in 1933 when he joined the “Three Terpsichoreans,” a vaudeville dance act. They opened in Utica, New York, with him using the name Danny Kaye for the first time. The act toured the United States, then performed in Asia with the show La Vie Paree. The troupe left for a six-month tour of the Far East on February 8, 1934. While they were in Osaka, Japan, a typhoon hit the city. The hotel where Kaye and his colleagues stayed suffered heavy damage; a piece of the hotel’s cornice was hurled into Kaye’s room by the strong wind, nearly killing him. By performance time that evening, the city was in the grip of the storm. There was no power, and the audience was restless and nervous. To calm them, Kaye went on stage, holding a flashlight to illuminate his face, and sang every song he could recall as loudly as he was able. The experience of trying to entertain audiences who did not speak English inspired him to the pantomime, gestures, songs, and facial expressions that eventually made his reputation. Sometimes it was necessary just to get a meal. Kaye’s daughter, Dena, tells a story her father related about being in a restaurant in China and trying to order chicken. Kaye flapped his arms and clucked, giving the waiter an imitation of a chicken. The waiter nodded in understanding, bringing Kaye two eggs. His interest in cooking began on the tour.

When Kaye returned to the United States, jobs were in short supply and he struggled for bookings. One job was working in a burlesque revue with fan dancer Sally Rand. After the dancer dropped a fan while trying to chase away a fly, Kaye was hired to watch the fans so they were always held in front of her.

Career

Danny Kaye made his film debut in a 1935 comedy short Moon Over Manhattan. In 1937 he signed with New York–based Educational Pictures for a series of two-reel comedies. Kaye usually played a manic, dark-haired, fast-talking Russian in these low-budget shorts, opposite young hopefuls June Allyson or Imogene Coca. The Kaye series ended abruptly when the studio shut down in 1938. He was working in the Catskills in 1937, using the name Danny Kolbin. Kaye’s next venture was a short-lived Broadway show, with Sylvia Fine as the pianist, lyricist and composer. The Straw Hat Revue opened on September 29, 1939, and closed after ten weeks, but critics took notice of Kaye’s work. The reviews brought an offer for both Kaye and his bride, Sylvia, to work at La Martinique, a New York City nightclub. Kaye performed with Sylvia as his accompanist. At La Martinique, playwright Moss Hart saw Danny perform, which led to Hart casting him in his hit Broadway comedy Lady in the Dark.

Kaye scored a triumph in 1941 in Lady in the Dark. His show-stopping number was “Tchaikovsky,” by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, in which he sang the names of a string of Russian composers at breakneck speed, seemingly without taking a breath. In the next Broadway season, he was the star of a show about a young man who is drafted, called Let’s Face It!.

His feature film debut was in producer Samuel Goldwyn’s Technicolor 1944 comedy Up in Arms, a remake of Goldwyn’s Eddie Cantor comedy Whoopee! (1930). Kaye’s rubber face and patter were a hit, and rival producer Robert M. Savini cashed in by compiling three of Kaye’s Educational Pictures shorts into a patchwork feature, The Birth of a Star (1945). Studio mogul Goldwyn wanted Kaye’s prominent nose fixed to look less Jewish, Kaye refused. He did allow his red hair to be dyed blonde, apparently because it looked better in Technicolor.

Kaye starred in a radio program, The Danny Kaye Show, on CBS in 1945–1946. The cast included Eve Arden, Lionel Stander and Big Band leader Harry James, and it was scripted by radio notable Goodman Ace and playwright-director Abe Burrows.

The program’s popularity rose quickly. Before a year, he tied with Jimmy Durante for fifth place in the Radio Daily popularity poll. Kaye was asked to participate in a USO tour following the end of World War II. It meant he would be absent from his radio show for nearly two months at the beginning of the season. Kaye’s friends filled in, with a different guest host each week. Kaye was the first American actor to visit postwar Tokyo; He’d toured there some ten years before with the vaudeville troupe. When Kaye asked to be released from his radio contract in mid-1946, he agreed not to accept a regular radio show for one year and limited guest appearances on radio programs of others. Many of the show’s episodes survive today, notable for Kaye’s opening “signature” patter.

“Git gat gittle, giddle-di-ap, giddle-de-tommy, riddle de biddle de roop, da-reep, fa-san, skeedle de woo-da, fiddle de wada, reep!”

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Kaye was sufficiently popular to inspire imitations:

• The 1946 Warner Bros. cartoon Book Revue had a sequence with Daffy Duck impersonating Kaye singing “Carolina in the Morning” with the Russian accent that Kaye affected from time to time.

• Satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer’s 1953 song “Lobachevsky” was based on a number that Kaye had done, about the Russian director Constantin Stanislavski, with the affected Russian accent. Lehrer mentioned Kaye in an opening monologue, citing him as an “idol since childbirth”.

• Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster fashioned a short-lived superhero title, Funnyman, taking inspiration from Kaye’s persona.

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Kaye starred in several movies with actress Virginia Mayo in the 1940s, and is known for films such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), The Inspector General (1949), On the Riviera (1951) co-starring Gene Tierney, Knock on Wood (1954), White Christmas (1954, in a role intended for Fred Astaire, then Donald O’Connor), The Court Jester (1956), and Merry Andrew (1958). Kaye starred in two pictures based on biographies, Hans Christian Andersen (1952) the Danish storyteller, and The Five Pennies (1959) about jazz pioneer Red Nichols. His wife, writer/lyricist Sylvia Fine, wrote many tongue-twisting songs Danny Kaye was famous for. She was an associate producer. Some of Kaye’s films included the theme of doubles, two people who look identical (both Danny Kaye) being mistaken for each other, to comic effect.

Kaye teamed with the popular Andrews Sisters (Patty, Maxene, and LaVerne) on Decca Records in 1947, producing the number-three Billboard smash hit “Civilization (Bongo, Bongo, Bongo)”. The success of the pairing prompted both acts to record through 1950, producing rhythmically comical fare as “The Woody Woodpecker Song” (based on the bird from the Walter Lantz cartoons, and a Billboard hit for the quartet), “Put ’em in a Box, Tie ’em with a Ribbon (And Throw ’em in the Deep Blue Sea),” “The Big Brass Band from Brazil,” “It’s a Quiet Town (In Crossbone County),” “Amelia Cordelia McHugh (Mc Who?),” “Ching-a-ra-sa-sa”, and a duet by Danny and Patty of “Orange Colored Sky”. The acts teamed for two yuletide favorites: a frantic, harmonic rendition of “A Merry Christmas at Grandmother’s House (Over the River and Through the Woods)”, and a duet by Danny & Patty, “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth”

While his wife wrote Kaye’s material, there was much that was unwritten, springing from the mind of Danny Kaye, often while performing. Kaye had one character he never shared with the public; Kaplan, the owner of an Akron, Ohio rubber company, came to life only for family and friends. His wife Sylvia described the Kaplan character:

He doesn’t have any first name. Even his wife calls him just Kaplan. He’s an illiterate pompous character who advertises his philanthropies. Jack Benny or Dore Schary might say, “Kaplan, why do you hate unions so?” If Danny feels like doing Kaplan that night, he might be off on Kaplan for two hours.

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When he appeared at the London Palladium in 1948, he “roused the Royal family to laughter and was the first of many performers who have turned British variety into an American preserve.” Life magazine described his reception as “worshipful hysteria” and noted that the royal family, for the first time, left the royal box to watch from the front row of the orchestra. He related that he had no idea of the familial connections when the Marquess of Milford Haven introduced himself after a show and said he would like his cousins to see Kaye perform. Kaye stated that he never returned to the venue because there was no way to re-create the magic of that time. Kaye had an invitation to return to London for a Royal Variety Performance in November of the same year. When the invitation arrived, Kaye was busy with The Inspector General (which had a working title of Happy Times). Warner’s stopped the film to allow their star to attend. When his Decca co-workers The Andrews Sisters began their engagement at the London Palladium on the heels of Kaye’s successful 1948 appearance there, the trio was well received and David Lewin of the Daily Express declared, “The audience gave the Andrews Sisters the Danny Kaye roar!”

He hosted the 24th Academy Awards in 1952. The program was broadcast on radio. Telecasts of the Oscar ceremony came later. During the 1950s, Kaye visited Australia, where he played “Buttons” in a production of Cinderella in Sydney. In 1953, Kaye started a production company, Dena Pictures, named for his daughter. Knock on Wood was the first film produced by his firm. The firm expanded into television in 1960 under the name Belmont Television.

The Danny Kaye Show

Kaye entered television in 1956 on the CBS show See It Now with Edward R. Murrow. The Secret Life of Danny Kaye combined his 50,000-mile, ten-country tour as UNICEF ambassador with music and humor. His first solo effort was in 1960 with an hour special produced by Sylvia and sponsored by General Motors; with similar specials in 1961 and 1962. He hosted a variety hour on CBS television, The Danny Kaye Show, from 1963 to 1967, which won four Emmy awards and a Peabody award. Beginning in 1964, he acted as television host to the CBS telecasts of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz. Kaye did a stint as a What’s My Line? Mystery Guest on the Sunday night CBS-TV quiz program.

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Kaye was later a guest panelist on that show. He also appeared on the NBC interview program Here’s Hollywood.

In the 1970s, Kaye tore a ligament in his leg in the run of the Richard Rodgers musical Two by Two, but went on with the show, appearing with his leg in a cast and cavorting on stage in a wheelchair. He had done much the same on his television show in 1964 when his right leg and foot were burned from a cooking accident. Camera shots were planned so television viewers did not see Kaye in his wheelchair.

In 1976, he played Mister Geppetto in a television musical adaptation of The Adventures of Pinocchio with Sandy Duncan in the title role. Kaye portrayed Captain Hook opposite Mia Farrow in a musical version of Peter Pan featuring songs by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. It was shown on NBC-TV in December 1976, the Hallmark Hall of Fame series. He later guest-starred in episodes of The Muppet Show, The Cosby Show and in the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone.

In many films, as well as on stage, Kaye proved to be an able actor, singer, dancer and comedian. He showed his serious side as Ambassador for UNICEF and in his dramatic role in the memorable TV film Skokie, when he played a Holocaust survivor. Before his death in 1987, Kaye conducted an orchestra during a comical series of concerts organized for UNICEF fundraising. Kaye received two Academy Awards: an Academy Honorary Award in 1955 and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1982. Also that year he received the Screen Actors Guild Annual Award.

Kaye was enamored of music. While he claimed an inability to read music, he was said to have perfect pitch. Kaye’s ability with an orchestra was mentioned by Dmitri Mitropoulos, then conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. After Kaye’s appearance, Mitropoulos remarked, “Here is a man who is not musically trained, who cannot even read music, and he gets more out of my orchestra than I have.” Kaye was invited to conduct symphonies as charity fundraisers and was the conductor of the all-city marching band at the season opener of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1984. Over his career he raised over US $5,000,000 in support of musician pension funds.

In 1980, Kaye hosted and sang in the 25th Anniversary of Disneyland celebration, and hosted the opening celebration for Epcot in 1982 (EPCOT Center at the time), both were aired on prime-time American television.

Cooking

In his later years he entertained at home as chef—he had a special stove on his patio – and specialized in Chinese and Italian cooking. The stove Kaye used for his Chinese dishes was fitted with metal rings for the burners to allow the heat to be highly concentrated. Kaye installed a trough with circulating ice water to use the burners. Kaye taught Chinese cooking classes at a San Francisco Chinese restaurant in the 1970s. The theater and demonstration kitchen under the library at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York is named for him.

Let in life

Kaye referred to his kitchen as “Ying’s Thing.” While filming The Madwoman of Chaillot in France, he phoned home to ask his family if they would like to eat at “Ying’s Thing” that evening; Kaye flew home for dinner. Not all of his efforts in the kitchen went well. After flying to San Francisco for a recipe for sourdough bread, he came home and spent hours preparing loaves. When his daughter asked about the bread, Kaye hit the bread on the kitchen table. His bread was hard enough to chip it. Kaye approached his kitchen work with enthusiasm, making sausages and other foods needed for his cuisine. His work as a chef earned him the “Les Meilleurs Ouvriers de France” culinary award; Kaye was the only non-professional to achieve this honor.

Flying

Kaye was an aviation enthusiast. He became interested in learning to fly in 1959. An enthusiastic and accomplished golfer, he gave up golf in favor of flying. When Kaye went for his written pilot’s exam, he brought a liverwurst sandwich in case he was there for hours. The first plane Kaye owned was a Piper Aztec. Kaye received his first license as a private pilot of multi-engine aircraft, not being certified for operating a single engine plane until six years later. He was an accomplished pilot, rated for airplanes ranging from single-engine light aircraft to multi-engine jets. Kaye held a commercial pilot’s license and had flown every type of aircraft except military planes. A vice-president of Learjet, Kaye owned and operated a Learjet 24. He supported many flying projects. In 1968, he was Honorary Chairman of the Las Vegas International Exposition of Flight, a show that utilized many facets of the city’s entertainment industry while presenting an air show. The operational show chairman was well-known aviation figure Lynn Garrison. Kaye flew his plane to 65 cities in five days on a mission to help UNICEF.

Danny Kaye was fond of the legendary arranger Vic Schoen. Schoen had arranged for him on White Christmas, The Court Jester, and albums and concerts with the Andrews Sisters. In the 1960s, Vic Schoen was working on a show in Las Vegas with Shirley Temple. He was injured in a car accident. When Danny Kaye heard about the accident, he flew to McCarran Airport to pick up Schoen and bring him to Los Angeles for medical attention.

Baseball

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Kaye was part owner of baseball’s Seattle Mariners with Lester Smith from 1977 to 1981. Prior to that, the lifelong fan of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers recorded a song called “The D-O-D-G-E-R-S Song (Oh really? No, O’Malley!)”, describing a fictitious encounter with the San Francisco Giants, a hit during the real-life pennant chase of 1962. That song is included on Baseball’s Greatest Hits compact discs. A good friend of Leo Durocher, he often traveled with the team. In addition to being an owner, Kaye had an encyclopedic knowledge of the game.

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Charity

Throughout his life, Kaye donated to charities. Working alongside UNICEF’s Halloween fundraiser founder, Ward Simon Kimball Jr., the actor educated the public on impoverished children in deplorable living conditions overseas and assisted in the distribution of donated goods and funds. His involvement with UNICEF came about in an unusual way. Kaye was flying home from London in 1949 when one of the plane’s four engines lost its propeller and caught fire. The problem was initially thought serious enough that it might make an ocean landing; life jackets and life rafts were made ready. The plane was able to head back over 500 miles to land at Shannon Airport, Ireland. On the way back to Shannon, the head of the Children’s Fund, Maurice Pate, had the seat next to Danny Kaye and spoke at length about the need for recognition for the Fund. Their discussion continued on the flight from Shannon to New York; it was the beginning of the actor’s long association with UNICEF.

Death

Kaye died of heart failure on March 3, 1987, brought on by internal bleeding and complications of hepatitis. Kaye had quadruple bypass heart surgery in February 1983; he contracted hepatitis from a blood transfusion. He left a widow, Sylvia Fine, and a daughter, Dena. His ashes are interred in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. His grave is adorned with a bench that contains friezes of a baseball and bat, an aircraft, a piano, a flowerpot, musical notes, and a chef’s toque. Kaye’s name, birth and death dates are inscribed on the toque. The United Nations held a memorial tribute to him at their New York headquarters on the evening of October 21, 1987.

Personal life

Kaye and Sylvia Fine grew up in Brooklyn, living a few blocks apart, but they did not meet until they were working on an off-Broadway show in 1939. Sylvia was an audition pianist. Sylvia discovered that Danny had worked for her father, dentist Samuel Fine. Kaye, working in Florida, proposed on the telephone; the couple were married in Fort Lauderdale on January 3, 1940. Their daughter, Dena, was born on December 17, 1946.

Kaye and his wife raised their daughter without parental hopes or aspirations for her future. Kaye said in a 1954 interview, “Whatever she wants to be she will be without interference from her mother nor from me.” When she was very young, Dena did not like seeing her father perform because she did not understand that people were supposed to laugh at what he did. On January 18, 2013, during a 24-hour salute to Kaye on Turner Classic Movies in celebration of his 100th birthday, Kaye’s daughter Dena revealed to TCM host Ben Mankiewicz that Kaye was born in 1911.

After Kaye and his wife became estranged, circa 1947, he was allegedly involved with a succession of women, though he and Fine never divorced. The best known of these women was actress Eve Arden.

There are persistent claims that Kaye was homosexual or bisexual, and some sources assert that Kaye and Laurence Olivier had a ten-year relationship in the 1950s while Olivier was married to Vivien Leigh. A biography of Leigh states that their love affair caused her to have a breakdown. Olivier’s official biographer, Terry Coleman, has denied the affair. Joan Plowright, Olivier’s third wife and widow, has dealt with the matter in different ways on occasion: she deflected the question (but alluded to Olivier’s “demons”) in a BBC interview. She is reputed to have referred to Danny Kaye on one occasion, in response to a claim that it was she who broke up Olivier’s marriage to Leigh. However, in her memoirs, Plowright denies an affair between the two men. Producer Perry Lafferty reported: “People would ask me, ‘Is he gay? Is he gay?’ I never saw anything to substantiate that in the time I was with him.” Kaye’s final girlfriend, Marlene Sorosky, reported that he told her, “I’ve never had a homosexual experience in my life. I’ve never had any kind of gay relationship. I’ve had opportunities, but I never did anything about them.”

Gene Kelly

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Eugene Curran “Gene” Kelly (August 23, 1912 – February 2, 1996) was an American dancer, actor, singer, film director, producer, and choreographer. Kelly was known for his energetic and athletic dancing style, his good looks and the likeable characters that he played on screen.

Although he is known today for his performances in An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), he was a dominant force in Hollywood musical films from the mid-1940s until this art form fell out of fashion in the late 1950s. His many innovations transformed the Hollywood musical film, and he is credited with almost single-handedly making the ballet form commercially acceptable to film audiences.

Kelly was the recipient of an Academy Honorary Award in 1952 for his career achievements. He later received lifetime achievement awards in the Kennedy Center Honors (1982), and from the Screen Actors Guild and American Film Institute; in 1999, the American Film Institute also numbered him 15th in their Greatest Male Stars of All Time list.

Early life

Kelly was born in the Highland Park neighborhood of Pittsburgh. He was the third son of Harriet Catherine (née Curran) and James Patrick Joseph Kelly, a phonograph salesman. His father was born in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, to a family of Irish descent. His maternal grandfather was an immigrant from Derry, Ireland, and his maternal grandmother was of German ancestry. At the age of eight, Kelly was enrolled by his mother in dance classes, along with his elder brother James. They both rebelled, and, according to Kelly: “We didn’t like it much and were continually involved in fistfights with the neighborhood boys who called us sissies…I didn’t dance again until I was fifteen.” At one time Kelly’s childhood dream was to play shortstop for the hometown Pittsburgh Pirates. Kelly returned to dance on his own initiative and by then was an accomplished sportsman and well able to take care of himself. He attended St. Raphael Elementary School in the Morningside neighborhood of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Peabody High School in 1929 at the age of sixteen. He enrolled in Pennsylvania State College to study journalism but the economic crash obliged him to seek employment to help with the family’s finances. At this time, he worked up dance routines with his younger brother Fred in order to earn prize money in local talent contests, and they also performed in local nightclubs.

In 1931, Kelly enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh to study economics where he joined the Phi Kappa Theta fraternity. While at Pitt, Kelly became involved in the university’s Cap and Gown Club, which staged original, comedic musical productions. Earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics with his graduation from Pitt in 1933, he remained active with the Cap and Gown Club, serving as its director from 1934 to 1938, while at the same time enrolling in the University of Pittsburgh Law School. Also during this period, Kelly’s family started a dance studio on Munhall Road in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. In 1932, the dance studio was renamed The Gene Kelly Studio of the Dance. A second location was opened in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1933. Kelly served as a teacher at the studio during both his undergraduate and law student years at Pitt. In 1931, he was approached by the Rodef Shalom synagogue in Pittsburgh to teach dance, and to stage the annual Kermess. This venture was successful enough that his services were retained for seven years until his departure for New York. Eventually, though, he decided to pursue his career as a dance teacher and full-time entertainer, so Kelly dropped out of law school after two months. He began to increasingly focus on performing and later claimed: “With time I became disenchanted with teaching because the ratio of girls to boys was more than ten to one, and once the girls reached sixteen the dropout rate was very high.” In 1937, having successfully managed and developed the family’s dance school business, he finally did move to New York City in search of work as a choreographer.

After a fruitless search, Kelly returned to Pittsburgh, to his first position as a choreographer with the Charles Gaynor musical revue Hold Your Hats at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in April, 1938. Kelly appeared in six of the sketches, one of which, “La Cumparsita”, became the basis of an extended Spanish number in Anchors Aweigh eight years later.

His first Broadway assignment, in November 1938, was as a dancer in Cole Porter’s Leave It to Me! as the American ambassador’s secretary who supports Mary Martin while she sings “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”. He had been hired by Robert Alton who had staged a show at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and been impressed by Kelly’s teaching skills. When Alton moved on to choreograph One for the Money he hired Kelly to act, sing and dance in a total of eight routines. In 1939, he was selected to be part of a musical revue “One for the Money” produced by the actress Katharine Cornell, who was known for finding and hiring talented young actors.

Kelly’s first career breakthrough was in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Time of Your Life, which opened on October 25, 1939, where for the first time on Broadway he danced to his own choreography. In the same year he received his first assignment as a Broadway choreographer, for Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe. Betsy Blair was a member of the cast. He began dating Blair, and they married on October 16, 1941.

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In 1940, he was given the leading role in Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, again choreographed by Robert Alton, and this role propelled him to stardom. During its run he told reporters: “I don’t believe in conformity to any school of dancing. I create what the drama and the music demand. While I am a hundred percent for ballet technique, I use only what I can adapt to my own use. I never let technique get in the way of mood or continuity.” It was at this time also, that his colleagues noticed his phenomenal commitment to rehearsal and hard work. Van Johnson who also appeared in Pal Joey recalled: “I watched him rehearsing, and it seemed to me that there was no possible room for improvement. Yet he wasn’t satisfied. It was midnight and we had been rehearsing since eight in the morning. I was making my way sleepily down the long flight of stairs when I heard staccato steps coming from the stage…I could see just a single lamp burning. Under it, a figure was dancing…Gene.”

Offers from Hollywood began to arrive but Kelly was in no particular hurry to leave New York. Eventually, he signed with David O. Selznick, agreeing to go to Hollywood at the end of his commitment to Pal Joey, in October 1941. Prior to his contract, he also managed to fit in choreographing the stage production of Best Foot Forward.

1941–1945: Becoming established in Hollywood

Selznick sold half of Kelly’s contract to MGM for his first motion picture: For Me and My Gal (1942) starring box-office champion Judy Garland. Kelly claimed to be “appalled at the sight of myself blown up twenty times. I had an awful feeling that I was a tremendous flop”, (Betsy Blair told a different story!). For Me and My Gal performed very well and, in the face of much internal resistance, Arthur Freed of MGM picked up the other half of Kelly’s contract. After appearing in a cheap B-movie drama Pilot #5 he took the male lead in Cole Porter’s Du Barry Was a Lady opposite Lucille Ball (in a part originally intended for Ann Sothern). His first opportunity to dance to his own choreography came in his next picture Thousands Cheer, where he performed a mock-love dance with a mop.

He achieved his breakthrough as a dancer on film when MGM loaned him out to Columbia to work with Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl (1944), where he created a memorable routine dancing to his own reflection. Despite this, noted critic Manny Farber was moved to praise Kelly’s “attitude,” “clarity,” and “feeling” as an actor while inauspiciously concluding, “The two things he does least well – singing and dancing – are what he is given most consistently to do.” In 1944 he also starred in Christmas Holiday.

Gene-Kelly-and-Jerry-Mouse-in-Anchors-Aweigh

In Kelly’s next film Anchors Aweigh (1945), MGM virtually gave him a free hand to devise a range of dance routines, including the celebrated animated dance with Jerry Mouse, and his duets with co-star Frank Sinatra. The iconic performance was enough for Manny Farber to completely reverse his previous assessment of Kelly’s skills; reviewing the film, Farber enthused, “Kelly is the most exciting dancer to appear in Hollywood movies.” Anchors Aweigh became one of the most successful films of 1945 and it garnered Kelly his first and only Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

In Ziegfeld Follies (1946) – which was produced in 1944 but not released until 1946 – Kelly collaborated with Fred Astaire – for whom he had the greatest admiration – in the famous “The Babbitt and the Bromide” challenge dance routine.

At the end of 1944, Kelly enlisted in the U.S. Naval Air Service and was commissioned as lieutenant junior grade. He was stationed in the Photographic Section, Washington D.C., where he was involved in writing and directing a range of documentaries, and this stimulated his interest in the production side of film-making.

1946–1952: MGM

On his return to Hollywood in the spring of 1946, MGM had nothing planned and used him in a routine, black-and-white movie: Living in a Big Way. The film was considered so weak that Kelly was asked to design and insert a series of dance routines, and his ability to carry off such assignments was noticed. This led to his next picture with Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, a musical film version of S.N. Behrman’s play The Pirate, with songs by Cole Porter, in which Kelly plays the eponymous swashbuckler. The Pirate gave full rein to Kelly’s athleticism and is probably best remembered for Kelly’s work with The Nicholas Brothers – the leading African-American dancers of their day – in a virtuoso dance routine. Now regarded as a classic, the film was ahead of its time, but was a box-office flop.

Although MGM wanted Kelly to return to safer and more commercial vehicles, he ceaselessly fought for an opportunity to direct his own musical film. In the interim, he capitalized on his swashbuckling image as d’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers. and also appeared with Vera-Ellen in the Slaughter on Tenth Avenue ballet in Words and Music (1948). He was due to play the male lead opposite Garland in Easter Parade (1948), but broke his ankle playing volleyball. He withdrew from the film and convinced Fred Astaire to come out of retirement to replace him. There followed Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), his second film with Sinatra, where Kelly paid tribute to his Irish heritage in The Hat My Father Wore on St. Patrick’s Day routine. It was this musical film which persuaded Arthur Freed to allow Kelly to make On the Town, where he partnered with Frank Sinatra for the third and final time, creating a breakthrough in the musical film genre which has been described as “the most inventive and effervescent musical thus far produced in Hollywood.”

Stanley Donen, brought to Hollywood by Kelly to be his assistant choreographer, received co-director credit for On the Town. According to Kelly: “…when you are involved in doing choreography for film you must have expert assistants. I needed one to watch my performance, and one to work with the cameraman on timing; without such people as Stanley, Carol Haney and Jeanne Coyne I could never have done these things. When we came to do On the Town, I knew it was time for Stanley to get screen credit because we weren’t boss-assistant anymore but co-creators.” Together, they opened up the musical form, taking the film musical out of the studio and into real locations, with Donen taking responsibility for the staging and Kelly handling the choreography. Kelly went much further than before in introducing modern ballet into his dance sequences, going so far in the “Day in New York” routine as to substitute four leading ballet specialists for Sinatra, Munshin, Garrett and Miller.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

It was now Kelly’s turn to ask the studio for a straight acting role and he took the lead role in the early Mafia melodrama: Black Hand (1950). This exposé of organized crime is set in New York’s “Little Italy” during late 19th century, and focuses on the Black Hand, a group which extorts money upon threat of death. In real-life incidents upon which this film is based, it was the Mafia, not the Black Hand, who functioned as the villain. Even in 1950, however, Hollywood had to tread gingerly whenever dealing with big-time crime, it being safer to go after a “dead” criminal organization than a “live” one.

There followed Summer Stock (1950) – Judy Garland’s last musical film for MGM – in which Kelly performed the celebrated “You, You Wonderful You” solo routine with a newspaper and a squeaky floorboard. In his book “Easy the Hard Way”, Joe Pasternak, head of one of the other musical units within MGM, singled out Kelly for his patience and willingness to spend as much time as necessary to enable the ailing Garland to complete her part.

There followed in quick succession two musicals which have secured Kelly’s reputation as a major figure in the American musical film, An American in Paris (1951) and – probably the most popular and admired of all film musicals – Singin’ in the Rain (1952). As co-director, lead star and choreographer, Kelly was the central driving force. Johnny Green, head of music at MGM at the time, described him as follows:

“Gene is easygoing as long as you know exactly what you are doing when you’re working with him. He’s a hard taskmaster and he loves hard work. If you want to play on his team you’d better like hard work, too. He isn’t cruel but he is tough, and if Gene believed in something he didn’t care who he was talking to, whether it was Louis B. Mayer or the gatekeeper. He wasn’t awed by anybody, and he had a good record of getting what he wanted.”

Poster-An-American-in-Paris_03

An American in Paris won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and, in the same year, Kelly was presented with an honorary Academy Award for his contribution to film musicals and the art of choreography. The film also marked the debut of Leslie Caron, who Kelly had spotted in Paris and brought to Hollywood. Its dream ballet sequence, lasting an unprecedented seventeen minutes, was the most expensive production number ever filmed up to that point. It was described by Bosley Crowther as, “whoop-de-doo … one of the finest ever put on the screen.” Singin’ in the Rain featured Kelly’s celebrated and much imitated solo dance routine to the title song, along with the “Moses Supposes” routine with Donald O’Connor and the “Broadway Melody” finale with Cyd Charisse. Though the scene did not initially generate the same enthusiasm as An American in Paris, it subsequently overtook the earlier film to occupy its current pre-eminent place among critics and filmgoers alike.

1953–57: The Decline of the Hollywood Musical

Kelly, at the very peak of his creative powers, now made what in retrospect is seen as a serious mistake. In December 1951 he signed a contract with MGM that sent him to Europe for nineteen months so that Kelly could use MGM funds frozen in Europe to make three pictures while personally benefiting from tax exemptions. Only one of these pictures was a musical, Invitation to the Dance, a pet project of Kelly’s to bring modern ballet to mainstream film audiences. It was beset with delays and technical problems, and flopped when finally released in 1956. When Kelly returned to Hollywood in 1953, the film musical was already beginning to feel the pressures from television, and MGM cut the budget for his next picture Brigadoon (1954), with Cyd Charisse, forcing the film to be made on studio back lots instead of on location in Scotland. This year also saw him appear as guest star with his brother Fred in the celebrated “I Love to Go Swimmin’ with Wimmen” routine in Deep in My Heart. MGM’s refusal to loan him out for Guys and Dolls and Pal Joey put further strains on his relationship with the studio. He negotiated an exit to his contract that involved making three further pictures for MGM.

The first of these, It’s Always Fair Weather (1956) co-directed with Donen, was a musical satire on television and advertising, and includes his famous roller skate dance routine to “I Like Myself,” and a dance trio with Michael Kidd and Dan Dailey which allowed Kelly to experiment with the widescreen possibilities of Cinemascope. MGM had lost faith in Kelly’s box-office appeal and as a result It’s Always Fair Weather “premiered” at seventeen drive-in theatres around the Los Angeles metroplex. Next followed Kelly’s last musical film for MGM, Les Girls (1957), in which he partnered a trio of leading ladies, Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall and Taina Elg. It too sold few movie tickets. The third picture he completed was a co-production between MGM and himself, a cheapie B-film The Happy Road, set in his beloved France, his first foray in a new role as producer-director-actor.

1958–1996: Years of perseverance

Leaving MGM in 1957, Kelly returned to stage work. In 1958 he directed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical play Flower Drum Song. Early in 1960, Kelly, an ardent Francophile and fluent French speaker, was invited by A. M. Julien, the general administrator of the Paris Opéra and Opéra-Comique,[6] to select his own material and create a modern ballet for the company, the first time an American had received such an assignment. The result was Pas de Dieux, based on Greek mythology, combined with the music of George Gershwin’s Concerto in F. It was a major success, and led to his being honored with the Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur by the French Government.

Kelly continued to make some film appearances, such as Hornbeck in the 1960 Hollywood production of Inherit the Wind. However, most of his efforts were now concentrated on film production and directing. In 1962, he directed Jackie Gleason in Gigot in Paris, but the film was drastically re-cut by Seven Arts Productions and flopped. Another French effort, Jacques Demy’s homage to the MGM musical: Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967) in which Kelly appeared, was popular in France and nominated for Academy Awards for Best Music and Score of a Musical Picture (Original or Adaptation) but performed poorly, elsewhere. He appeared as himself in George Cukor’s Let’s Make Love (1960).

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His first foray into television was a documentary for NBC’s Omnibus, Dancing is a Man’s Game (1958) where he assembled a group of America’s greatest sportsmen – including Mickey Mantle, Sugar Ray Robinson and Bob Cousy – and re-interpreted their moves choreographically, as part of his lifelong quest to remove the effeminate stereotype of the art of dance, while articulating the philosophy behind his dance style. It gained an Emmy nomination for choreography and now stands as the key document explaining Kelly’s approach to modern dance.

Kelly also frequently appeared on television shows during the 1960s, but his one effort at television series, as Father Chuck O’Malley in Going My Way (1962–63), based on the Best Picture of 1944 starring Bing Crosby, was dropped after thirty episodes, although it enjoyed great popularity in Roman Catholic countries outside of the United States. He also appeared in three major TV specials: New York, New York (1966), The Julie Andrews’ Show (1965), and Jack and the Beanstalk (1967) a show he produced and directed which returned to a combination of cartoon animation with live dance, winning him an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Program.

In 1963 Kelly joined Universal Pictures for a two-year stint. He joined 20th Century Fox in 1965, but had little to do – partly due to his decision to decline assignments away from Los Angeles for family reasons. His perseverance finally paid off, with the major box-office hit A Guide for the Married Man (1967) where he directed Walter Matthau. Then, a major opportunity arose when Fox – buoyed by the returns from The Sound of Music (1965) – commissioned Kelly to direct Hello, Dolly! (1969), again directing Matthau along with Barbra Streisand. Those splashy “in your face” production numbers caused the film to flop.

In 1970, he made another TV special: Gene Kelly and 50 Girls and was invited to bring the show to Las Vegas, Nevada, which he duly did for an eight-week stint – on condition he be paid more than any artist had hitherto been paid there. He directed veteran actors James Stewart and Henry Fonda in the comedy western The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) which performed poorly at the box-office. In 1973, he would work again with Frank Sinatra as part of Sinatra’s Emmy nominated TV special Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back. Then, in 1974, he appeared as one of many special narrators in the surprise hit of the year That’s Entertainment! and subsequently directed and co-starred with his friend Fred Astaire in the sequel That’s Entertainment, Part II (1976). It was a measure of his powers of persuasion that he managed to coax the 77-year-old Astaire – who had insisted that his contract rule out any dancing, having long since retired – into performing a series of song and dance duets, evoking a powerful nostalgia for the glory days of the American musical film. Kelly continued to make frequent TV appearances and, in 1980, appeared in an acting and dancing role with Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu (1980), an expensive theatrical flop which has since attained a cult following. In Kelly’s opinion, “The concept was marvelous but it just didn’t come off.” In the same year, he was invited by Francis Ford Coppola to recruit a production staff for American Zoetrope’s One from the Heart (1982). Although Coppola’s ambition was for him to establish a production unit to rival the Freed Unit at MGM, the film’s failure put an end to this idea. In 1985, Kelly served as executive producer and co-host of That’s Dancing! – a celebration of the history of dance in the American musical. Kelly’s final on-screen appearance was to introduce That’s Entertainment! III. His final film project was in 1994 for the animated movie Cats Don’t Dance, released in 1997 and dedicated to him, on which Kelly acted as an un-credited choreographic consultant.

Cats_Don__t_Dance_Danny_Sawyer_by_Tell_Me_Lies

Working methods and influence on filmed dance

When he began his collaborative film work, Robert Alton and John Murray Anderson influenced him; he strived to create moods and character insight with his dances. He choreographed his own movement, along with that of the ensemble, with the assistance of Jeanne Coyne, Stanley Donen, Carol Haney, and Alex Romero. He experimented with lighting, camera techniques and special effects in order to achieve true integration of dance with film, and was one of the first to use split screens, double images, live action with animation and is credited as the person who made the ballet form commercially acceptable to film audiences.

There was a clear progression in his development, from an early concentration on tap and musical comedy style to greater complexity using ballet and modern dance forms. Kelly himself refused to categorize his style: “I don’t have a name for my style of dancing…It’s certainly hybrid…I’ve borrowed from the modern dance, from the classical, and certainly from the American folk dance – tap-dancing, jitterbugging…But I have tried to develop a style which is indigenous to the environment in which I was reared.” He especially acknowledged the influence of George M. Cohan: “I have a lot of Cohan in me. It’s an Irish quality, a jaw-jutting, up-on-the-toes cockiness – which is a good quality for a male dancer to have.” He was also heavily influenced by an African-American dancer Dancing Dotson, whom he saw at Loew’s Penn Theatre around 1929, and was briefly taught by Frank Harrington, an African-American tap specialist from New York. However, his main interest was in ballet, which he studied under Kotchetovsky in the early Thirties. As biographer Clive Hirschhorn explains: “As a child he used to run for miles through parks and streets and woods – anywhere, just as long as he could feel the wind against his body and through his hair. Ballet gave him the same feeling of exhilaration, and in 1933 he was convinced it was the most satisfying form of self-expression.” He also studied Spanish dancing under Angel Cansino, Rita Hayworth’s uncle. Generally speaking, he tended to use tap and other popular dance idioms to express joy and exuberance – as in the title song from Singin’ in the Rain or “I Got Rhythm” from An American in Paris, whereas pensive or romantic feelings were more often expressed via ballet or modern dance, as in “Heather on the Hill” from Brigadoon or “Our Love Is Here to Stay” from An American in Paris.

Kelly in rehearsal with Sugar Ray Robinson and assistant Jeanne Coyne in the NBC Omnibus television special Dancing is a Man’s Game (1958)

According to Delamater, Kelly’s work “seems to represent the fulfillment of dance-film integration in the 1940s and 1950s”. While Fred Astaire had revolutionized the filming of dance in the 1930s by insisting on full-figure photography of dancers while allowing only a modest degree of camera movement, Kelly freed up the camera, making greater use of space, camera movement, camera angles and editing, creating a partnership between dance movement and camera movement without sacrificing full-figure framing. Kelly’s reasoning behind this was that he felt the kinetic force of live dance often evaporated when brought to film, and he sought to partially overcome this by involving the camera in movement and giving the dancer a greater number of directions in which to move. Examples of this abound in Kelly’s work and are well illustrated in the “Prehistoric Man” sequence from On the Town and “The Hat My Father Wore on St. Patrick’s Day” from Take Me Out to the Ball Game. In 1951, he summed up his vision as follows: “If the camera is to make a contribution at all to dance, this must be the focal point of its contribution; the fluid background, giving each spectator an undistorted and altogether similar view of dancer and background. To accomplish this, the camera is made fluid, moving with the dancer, so that the lens becomes the eye of the spectator, your eye”.

Kelly’s athleticism gave his moves a distinctive broad, muscular quality, and this was a very deliberate choice on his part, as he explained: “There’s a strong link between sports and dancing, and my own dancing springs from my early days as an athlete…I think dancing is a man’s game and if he does it well he does it better than a woman.” He railed against what he saw as the widespread effeminacy in male dancing which, in his opinion, “tragically” stigmatized the genre, alienating boys from entering the field: “Dancing does attract effeminate young men. I don’t object to that as long as they don’t dance effeminately. I just say that if a man dances effeminately he dances badly — just as if a woman comes out on stage and starts to sing bass. Unfortunately people confuse gracefulness with softness. John Wayne is a graceful man and so are some of the great ball players…but, of course, they don’t run the risk of being called sissies.” In his view, “one of our problems is that so much dancing is taught by women. You can spot many male dancers who have this tuition by their arm movements — they are soft, limp and feminine.” He acknowledged that, in spite of his efforts — in TV programs such as Dancing: A Man’s Game (1958) for example — the situation changed little over the years.

He also sought to break from the class-conscious conventions of the 1930s and early 40s, when top hat and tails or tuxedos were the norm, by dancing in casual or everyday work clothes, so as to make his dancing more relevant to the cinema-going public. As his first wife, actress and dancer Betsy Blair explained: “A sailor suit or his white socks and loafers, or the T-shirts on his muscular torso, gave everyone the feeling that he was a regular guy, and perhaps they too could express love and joy by dancing in the street or stomping through puddles…he democratized the dance in movies.” In particular, he wanted to create a completely different image from that associated with Fred Astaire, not least because he believed his physique didn’t suit such refined elegance: “I used to envy his cool aristocratic style, so intimate and contained. Fred wears top hat and tails to the manner born — I put them on and look like a truck driver.”

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Marriages

Kelly married actress Betsy Blair in 1941. They had one child, Kerry, and divorced in April 1957.

In 1960, Kelly married his choreographic assistant Jeanne Coyne, who had divorced Stanley Donen in 1949 after a brief marriage. He remained married to Coyne until her death in 1973. They had two children, Bridget and Tim. He was married to Patricia Ward from 1990 until his death in 1996.

Political and religious views

Kelly was a lifelong supporter of the Democratic Party that occasionally created difficulty for him as his period of greatest prominence coincided with the McCarthy era in the U.S. In 1947, he was part of the Committee for the First Amendment, the Hollywood delegation that flew to Washington to protest at the first official hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His first wife, Betsy Blair, was suspected of being a Communist sympathizer and when United Artists, who had offered Blair a part in Marty (1955), were considering withdrawing her under pressure from the American Legion, Kelly successfully threatened MGM’s influence on United Artists with a pullout from It’s Always Fair Weather unless his wife was restored to the part. He used his position on the board of directors of the Writers Guild of America, West on a number of occasions to mediate disputes between unions and the Hollywood studios, and although some on the right of championing the unions frequently accused him; the studios valued him as an effective mediator.

Kelly was a major financial supporter of the Official Irish Republican Army (IRA), and he left thousands of pounds to NORAID in his will. He was raised as a Roman Catholic, and he was a member of the Good Shepherd Parish and the Catholic Motion Picture Guild in Beverly Hills, California. However, after becoming disenchanted by the Roman Catholic Church’s support for Francisco Franco against the Spanish Republic, he officially severed his ties with the church in September 1939. This separation was prompted, in part, by a trip Kelly made to Mexico in which he became convinced of the Church’s failure in helping the poor. After his departure from the Catholic Church, Kelly became an agnostic and remained so for the rest of his life. He retained a lifelong passion for sports and relished competition. He was known as a big fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Yankees. From the mid-1940s through the early 1950s, he and Blair organized weekly parties at their Beverly Hills home, and they often played an intensely competitive and physical version of charades, known as “The Game.”

Final years and death

Kelly’s health declined steadily in the late 1980s. A stroke in July 1994 resulted in a seven-week hospital stay, and another stroke in early 1995 left Kelly mostly bedridden in his Beverly Hills home. He died in his sleep at 8:15 a.m. on February 2, 1996, and his body was subsequently cremated, without any funeral or memorial services. Kelly’s papers are currently housed at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University

Lester Young

Lester Young
Lester Young

Lester Willis Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959), nicknamed “Pres” or “Prez”, was an American jazz tenor saxophonist and sometime clarinetist.

Coming to prominence while a member of Count Basie’s orchestra, Young was one of the most influential players on his instrument. In contrast to many of his hard-driving peers, Young played with a relaxed, cool tone and used sophisticated harmonies, using “a free-floating style, wheeling and diving like a gull, banking with low, funky riffs that pleased dancers and listeners alike.”

Famous for his hip, introverted style, he invented or popularized much of the hipster jargon which came to be associated with the music.

Lester Young was born in Woodville, Mississippi, and grew up in a musical family. His father, Willis Handy Young, was a respected teacher, his brother Lee Young was a drummer, and several other relatives played music professionally. His family moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, when Lester was an infant and later to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Although at a very young age Young did not initially know his father, he learned that his father was a musician. Later Willis taught his son to play the trumpet, violin, and drums in addition to the saxophone.

Young played in his family’s band, known as the Young Family Band, in both the vaudeville and carnival circuits. He left the family band in 1927 at the age of 18 because he refused to tour in the Southern United States, where Jim Crow laws were in effect and racial segregation was required in public facilities.

In 1933 Young settled in Kansas City, where after playing briefly in several bands, he rose to prominence with Count Basie. His playing in the Basie band was characterized by a relaxed style which contrasted sharply with the more forceful approach of Coleman Hawkins, the dominant tenor sax player of the day.

He left the Basie band to replace Hawkins in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra. He soon left Henderson to play in the Andy Kirk band (for six months) before returning to Basie. While with Basie, Young made small-group recordings for Milt Gabler’s Commodore Records, The Kansas City Sessions. Although they were recorded in New York (in 1938, with a reunion in 1944), they are named after the group, the Kansas City Seven, and comprised Buck Clayton, Dicky Wells, Basie, Young, Freddie Green, Rodney Richardson, and Jo Jones. Young played clarinet as well as tenor in these sessions. He was a master of the clarinet, and there too his style was entirely his own. As well as the Kansas City Sessions, his clarinet work from 1938–39 is documented on recordings with Basie, Billie Holiday, Basie small groups, and the organist Glenn Hardman.

After Young’s clarinet was stolen in 1939, he abandoned the instrument until about 1957. That year Norman Granz gave him one and urged him to play it (with far different results at that stage in Young’s life—see below).

Young left the Basie band in late 1940. He is rumored to have refused to play with the band on Friday, December 13 of that year for superstitious reasons, spurring his dismissal. Lester left the band around that time and subsequently led a number of small groups that often included his brother, noted drummer Lee Young, for the next couple of years; live and broadcast recordings from this period exist.

During this period Young accompanied the singer Billie Holiday in a couple of studio sessions in 1940 and 1941 and also made a small set of recordings with Nat “King” Cole (their first of several collaborations) in June 1942. His studio recordings are relatively sparse during the 1942 to 1943 period, largely due to the American Federation of Musicians’ recording ban. It was Holiday who gave Young the nickname “Pres”, short for President.

In December 1943 Lester Young returned to the Count Basie fold for a 10-month stint, cut short by his being drafted into the army during World War II.

In September 1944 Young and Jo Jones were in Los Angeles with the Basie Band when they were inducted into the U.S. Army. Unlike many white musicians, who were placed in band outfits such as the ones led by Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw, Young was assigned to the regular army where he was not allowed to play his saxophone. Based in Ft. McClellan, Alabama, Young was found with marijuana and alcohol among his possessions. He was soon court-martialed. Young did not fight the charges and was convicted. He served one year in a detention barracks and was dishonorably discharged in late 1945. His experience inspired his composition “D.B. Blues” (with D.B. standing for detention barracks).

Some jazz historians have argued that Young’s playing power declined in the years following his army experience, though critics such as Scott Yanow disagree with this entirely. Recordings show that his playing began to change before he was drafted. Some argue that Young’s playing had an increasingly emotional slant to it, and the post-war period featured some of his greatest renditions of ballads.

Recordings made during this and subsequent periods suggest Young was beginning to make much greater use of a plastic reed, which tended to give his playing a somewhat heavier, breathier tone (although still quite smooth compared to that of many other players). While he never abandoned the wooden reed, he used the plastic reed a significant share of the time from 1943 until the end of his life. Another cause for the thickening of his tone around this time was a change in saxophone mouthpiece from a metal Otto Link to an ebonite Brilhart. In August 1944 Young appeared alongside drummer Jo Jones, trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, and fellow tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet in Gjon Mili’s short film Jammin’ the Blues.

In September 1944 Young and Jo Jones were in Los Angeles with the Basie Band when they were inducted into the U.S. Army. Unlike many white musicians, who were placed in band outfits such as the ones led by Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw, Young was assigned to the regular army where he was not allowed to play his saxophone. Based in Ft. McClellan, Alabama, Young was found with marijuana and alcohol among his possessions. He was soon court-martialed. Young did not fight the charges and was convicted. He served one year in a detention barracks and was dishonorably discharged in late 1945. His experience inspired his composition “D.B. Blues” (with D.B. standing for detention barracks).

Some jazz historians have argued that Young’s playing power declined in the years following his army experience, though critics such as Scott Yanow disagree with this entirely. Recordings show that his playing began to change before he was drafted. Some argue that Young’s playing had an increasingly emotional slant to it, and the post-war period featured some of his greatest renditions of ballads.

Young’s career after World War II was far more prolific and lucrative than in the pre-war years in terms of recordings made, live performances, and annual income. Young joined Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) troupe in 1946, touring regularly with them over the next 12 years. He made a significant number of studio recordings under Granz’s supervision for his Verve Records label as well, including more trio recordings with Nat King Cole. Young also recorded extensively in the late 1940s for Aladdin Records (1946-7, where he had made the Cole recordings in 1942) and for Savoy (1944, ’49 and ’50), some sessions of which included Basie on piano.

While the quality and consistency of his playing ebbed gradually in the latter half of the 1940s and into the early 1950s, he also gave some brilliant performances during this stretch. Especially noteworthy are his performances with JATP in 1946, 1949, and 1950.[citation needed] With Young at the 1949 JATP concert at Carnegie Hall were Charlie Parker and Roy Eldridge, and Young’s solo on “Lester Leaps In” at that concert is a particular standout among his performances in the latter half of his career.

While the quality and consistency of his playing ebbed gradually in the latter half of the 1940s and into the early 1950s, he also gave some brilliant performances during this stretch. Especially noteworthy are his performances with JATP in 1946, 1949, and 1950. With Young at the 1949 JATP concert at Carnegie Hall were Charlie Parker and Roy Eldridge, and Young’s solo on “Lester Leaps In” at that concert is a particular standout among his performances in the latter half of his career.

From around 1951, Young’s level of playing declined more precipitously, as he began to drink more and more heavily. His playing showed reliance on a small number of clichéd phrases and reduced creativity and originality, despite his claims that he did not want to be a “repeater pencil” (Young coined this phrase to describe the act of repeating one’s own past ideas). A comparison of his studio recordings from 1952, such as the session with pianist Oscar Peterson, and those from 1953–1954 (all available on the Verve label) also demonstrates a declining command of his instrument and sense of timing, possibly due to both mental and physical factors. Young’s playing and health went into a crisis, culminating in a November 1955 hospital admission following a nervous breakdown.

He emerged from this treatment improved. In January 1956 he recorded two Granz-produced sessions featuring pianist Teddy Wilson (who had led the Billie Holiday recordings with Young in the 1930s), trumpet player Roy Eldridge, trombonist Vic Dickenson, bassist Gene Ramey, and drummer Jo Jones – available on the Jazz Giants ’56 and Prez and Teddy albums. 1956 was a relatively good year for Lester Young, including a tour of Europe with Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet and a successful stint at Olivia’s Patio Lounge in Washington, DC.

Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Lester Young had sat in on Count Basie Orchestra gigs from time to time. The best-known of these is their July 1957 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, the line-up including many of Lester’s old buddies: Jo Jones, Roy Eldridge, Illinois Jacquet and Jimmy Rushing. His playing was in better shape, and he produced some of the old, smooth-toned flow of the 1930s. Among other tunes he played a moving “Polkadots and Moonbeams,” which was a favorite of his at that time.

In September 1944 Young and Jo Jones were in Los Angeles with the Basie Band when they were inducted into the U.S. Army. Unlike many white musicians, who were placed in band outfits such as the ones led by Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw, Young was assigned to the regular army where he was not allowed to play his saxophone. Based in Ft. McClellan, Alabama, Young was found with marijuana and alcohol among his possessions. He was soon courtmartialed. Young did not fight the charges and was convicted. He served one year in a detention barracks and was dishonorably discharged in late 1945. His experience inspired his composition “D.B. Blues” (with D.B. standing for detention barracks).

Some jazz historians have argued that Young’s playing power declined in the years following his army experience, though critics such as Scott Yanow disagree with this entirely. Recordings show that his playing began to change before he was drafted. Some argue that Young’s playing had an increasingly emotional slant to it, and the post-war period featured some of his greatest renditions of ballads. Like Change My Plan; I Didn’t Know What Time It Was (1956 version); Gigantic Blues;This Year’s Kisses;You Can Depend on Me; and, I Guess I’ll Have.

On December 8, 1957, Young appeared with Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, and Gerry Mulligan in the CBS television special The Sound of Jazz, performing Holiday’s tunes “Lady Sings The Blues” and “Fine and Mellow.” It was a reunion with Holiday, with whom he had lost contact for years. She was also in decline at the end of her career, and they both gave moving performances. Young’s solo was brilliant, considered by many jazz musicians an unparalleled marvel of economy, phrasing and extraordinarily moving emotion. But Young seemed gravely ill, and was the only horn player who was seated (except during his solo) during the performance. By this time his alcoholism had cumulative effect. He was eating significantly less, drinking more and more, and suffering from liver disease and malnutrition. Young’s sharply diminished physical strength in the final two years of his life yielded some recordings with a frail tone, shortened phrases, and, on rare occasions, a difficulty in getting any sound to come out of his horn at all.

Lester Young made his final studio recordings and live performances in Paris in March 1959 with drummer Kenny Clarke at the tail end of an abbreviated European tour during which he ate next to nothing and virtually drank himself to death. He died in the early morning hours of March 15, 1959, only hours after arriving back in New York, at the age of 49. He was buried at the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn. According to jazz critic Leonard Feather, who rode with Holiday in a taxi to Young’s funeral, she said after the services, “I’ll be the next one to go.” Billie Holiday died four months later at age 44.

Charles Mingus dedicated an elegy, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” for Young only a few months after his death. Wayne Shorter, then of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, composed a tribute, called “Lester Left Town.”

Young’s playing style influenced many other tenor saxophonists. Perhaps the most famous and successful of these were Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon, but he also influenced many in the cool movement such as Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, and Gerry Mulligan. Paul Quinichette modeled his style so closely on Young’s that he was sometimes referred to as the “Vice Prez” (sic). Sonny Stitt began to incorporate elements from Lester Young’s approach when he made the transition to tenor saxophone. Lester Young also had a direct influence on young Charlie Parker (“Bird”), and thus the entire be-bop movement. Indeed, recordings of Parker on tenor sax are similar in style to that of Young. Lesser-known saxophonists, such as Warne Marsh, were strongly influenced by Young.

Don Byron recorded the album Ivey-Divey in gratitude for what he learned from studying Lester Young’s work, modeled after a 1946 trio date with Buddy Rich and Nat King Cole. “Ivey-Divey” was one of Lester Young’s common eccentric phrases.

Young is a major character in English writer Geoff Dyer’s 1991 fictional book about jazz, But Beautiful.

The Resurrection of Lady Lester by OyamO (Charles F. Gordon) is a play and published book depicting Young’s life, subtitled “A Poetic Mood Song Based on the Legend of Lester Young.”

In the 1986 film Round Midnight, the fictional main character Dale Turner, played by Dexter Gordon, was partly based on Young – incorporating flashback references to his army experiences, and loosely depicting his time in Paris and his return to New York just before his death.

Acid Jazz/boogaloo band the Greyboy Allstars song “Tenor Man” is a tribute to Young. On their 1999 album “Live,” saxophonist Karl Denson introduces the song by saying, “…now some folks may have told you that Lester Young is out of style, but we’re here to tell you that the Prez is happenin’ right now.” Those were literally the lyrics Rahsaan Roland Kirk wrote and sang to the melody of the Charles Mingus elegy, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.”

Peter Straub’s short story collection Magic Terror (2000) contains a story called “Pork Pie Hat,” a fictionalized account of the life of Lester Young. Straub was inspired by Young’s appearance on the 1957 CBS-TV show The Sound of Jazz, which he watched repeatedly, wondering how such a genius could have ended up such a human wreck.

Lester Young is said to have popularized use of the term “cool” to mean something fashionable. Another slang term he coined was the term “bread” for money. He would ask, “How does the bread smell?” when asking how much a gig was going to pay.

What is Jazz?

original-dixieland-jazz-band-31

WHAT IS JAZZ?

by  Mel Goldgerg

While jazz is difficult to define, improvisation is one of its major elements — the creative expression and interaction between composer and performer. Improvisation developed enormously over the history of the music. In early New Orleans and Dixieland jazz, performers took turns playing the melody, while others improvised counter-melodies. During the Big Band era, the reliance turned more toward arranged music while individual soloists improvised within the arrangements. With the shift back toward small groups, the melody was stated briefly at the start and end of a piece, but the core of the performance was a series of improvisations. Unlike symphonic music, which is played without ever varying a single note, skilled jazz performers interpret music in individual ways, never playing a composition exactly the same way twice. The performer’s mood and personal experience, interactions with other musicians, or even members of the audience, may alter melodies, harmonies, or even time signatures.

The jazz genre originated at the beginning of the 20th century within the African-American communities of the southern United States. It combined European harmony and form elements with African-based music, evident in its use of blue notes, improvisation, poly-rhythms, syncopation, and swing. From its early development until the present day, jazz has also incorporated elements from popular music, especially American.

As the music developed and spread around the world, it drew on many different musical cultures, giving rise to distinctive styles, like New Orleans jazz, bebop, Afro-Cuban jazz, avant-garde jazz, Latin jazz, jazz fusion, and other ways of playing the music.

Here’s an interesting feature on two jazz greats, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane…

Cry Me a River…

Julie London
Julie London

“Cry Me a River” is a popular American torch song, written by Arthur Hamilton, first published in 1953, and made famous in the version by Julie London in 1955.

A jazzy blues ballad, “Cry Me a River” was originally written for Ella Fitzgerald to sing in the 1920s-set film, Pete Kelly’s Blues (released in 1955), but the song was dropped. Fitzgerald first released a recording of the song on Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! in 1961. The song’s first release was by actress/singer Julie London in 1955, backed by Barney Kessel on guitar and Ray Leatherwood on bass. A performance of the song by London in the 1956 film The Girl Can’t Help It helped to make it a bestseller (reaching number nine  on U.S. and number 22 on U.K. charts). London’s recording was later featured in the soundtracks for the movies Passion of Mind (2000), and V for Vendetta (2005).

 

June Christy Sings!

Here are a series of videos featuring the incomparable June Christy, one of the most overlooked vocalists of her generation. This first one was shot at the Playboy Mansion, in 1959…

Here’s a younger June, this time performing with the Stan Kenton Orchestra…

And here’s June one more time, in 1950…