An American woman teaches English boys the Charleston in 1925 (according to Reddit)
I think everyone has one family member who most influenced their music tastes. A parent, perhaps, or an older sibling, or an aunt or uncle. (Obviously, I hope to be that person for my niece and nephews. “Mummmm! Auntie Andie’s made me ANOTHER Bruce Springsteen playlist!”) But while I have to thank my older sister for playing lots of The Police, my older brother for playing Rainbow’s Since You’ve Been Gone, and my parents for introducing me to classical music and MGM musicals (and even, in a surprisingly hip move from them, Dave Brubeck), it was my Uncle Den who introduced me to jazz.
Uncle Den turns 90 this week. If you get a telegram from the Queen when you turn 100, I wonder what you get when you turn 90? An email from Prince Philip? A Facebook poke from Prince Harry? Something, surely. Even a postcard from Sophie Of Whatsist wouldn’t go amiss.
Den lives in Bristol – and one of my strongest childhood memories is being at his and my Auntie Kay’s house for Sunday lunch. Every so often, on a Sunday, my family would pack into the car and drive down to Bristol from the West Midlands (and being six of us, we really did pack into it: I spent many journeys sitting in the footwell behind the front passenger seat. Apparently this was acceptable in-car safety in the 1970s). And one of my strongest memories of this experience – even stronger than the memory of looking up at motorway lights from the footwell of a Marina – was the music that Uncle Den played.
Specifically, the music of Glenn Miller. Den’s Glenn Miller records were my introduction to big band music, and thus swing, and thus jazz (which Den also loved). I loved listening to In The Mood, Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree, Serenade In Blue, Chattanooga Choo Choo, Moonlight Serenade, Pennsylvania 6-500, I’ve Got A Girl In Kalamazoo… And it’s perhaps not surprising, because I think there’s something about many of those songs that’s especially appealing to kids: catchy melodies and rhythms; shout choruses; great, fun rhymes (“Dinner in the diner/Nothing could be finer/Than to have your ham and eggs in Carolina”); and clever, funny wordplay (“Hiya, Mr. Jackson/Everything’s O-K-A-L-A-M-A-Z-O-Oh… what a gal!”).
I loved them – and I loved the sheer sound of the big band: the swinging saxophones, the punchy horns, the hugely satisfying vocal harmonies. Not to mention the whole ‘scene’ that went with it. Uncle Den had been in the RAF during the war (in fact, I think that’s where he met my Auntie Kay) and this was the music of that era, of course. Of swing dances, dapper suits and gravy-stained stockings (and if I’d been around then, I surely would have split gravy all over my stockings). For many years, it was my secret ambition to a be a singer with a big band. The songs you’d get to sing! The dresses you’d get to wear! The gloves you’d get to pull up to your elbows! That’s right – if you were a big band singer, you’d be literally up to your elbows in gloves. What’s not to love?
So I have Den to thank for introducing me to this sort of music – big band, swing and jazz. And I also have him to thank for knowing songs which fall under the more unfashionable spectrum of ’50s and ’60s hits: songs like Spanish Eyes, Yellow Bird, Tulips From Amsterdam and Good Morning Starshine. Because as well as loving his music, my Uncle Den loves his gadgets. As a result of these two loves, he was what I believe one would call nowadays an ‘early adopter’ of the sort of electronic keyboards that invaded British homes in the 1970s and ’80s. I couldn’t be trusted to visit Auntie Kay and Uncle Den’s house without leaping on them (the keyboards, not Kay and Den) and playing them for as long as was polite in such a social situation (ie. until Den kicked me off). And the music books that accompanied these keyboards always seemed to feature songs like those mentioned above – songs which I fear are going to be completely forgotten as soon as those of us who played home organs in the 1970s die off. I don’t know much, but I know that kids today don’t know the lyrics to Yellow Bird. Although that may not be a bad thing.
Anyway: fast-forward to the Noughties, and I while I’ve never sung with a big band, I have sung with many small bands; and a few years ago, I used to sing and play piano in various restaurants and bars in London. Which, now I think about it, is not a million miles away from crouching on a sitting room floor bashing out “Bluuuuuue…. Spanish Eyyyyyyes…”, only without the drum machine rhythm marked ‘rhumba’. It may have taken a while for me to grab my jazz singing ambitions by the smokey-sounding throat, but I did do it, eventually. And I have Uncle Den to partly thank for that.
So what do you get the 90 year-old who has everything? Well, given the musical influence he’s had on me, it seems only right that part of my present is a playlist (burned on to CD, so he can actually listen to it. He was also an early adopter of CDs). So I’ve made one of music which also turns 90 this year. Looking for songs published in 1925 has thrown up delights like I’m Sitting On Top Of The World, Sweet Georgia Brown, Yes Sir That’s My Baby, Rodgers and Hart’s Manhattan, Cole Porter’s I’m In Love Again… They’re no Yellow Bird or Spanish Eyes, admittedly, but they’re pretty good. And of course, back in 1925, it was all about sheet music sales rather than recordings – so while all these songs were published that year, I’ve chosen recordings from usually much later (including Patsy Cline’s version of Irving Berlin’s Always). Here’s the playlist – be prepared for perhaps the sexiest rendition of Tea For Two you’ve ever heard, courtesy of the wonderful Blossom Dearie; and to finish with, absolutely, definitely the sexiest rendition of Show Me The Way To Go Home you’ve ever heard. Trust Julie London to take a p***-heads’ song and make it sound seductive…