17 June 2018

How George Benson Was Banjoaxed By Bird

Such is the magic of onlinery that the above photograph, tweeted last night by Kliph Nesteroff, swiftly led to an explanation of a piece of musical jargon which had long puzzled me in Johnny Keyes' memoir Du-Wop. It's a good read, as described here and here, and is one of the few books that I know of which contains a detailed first hand account by a doo wop group member of the experience of recording and performing.

Keyes, a member of the Magnificents, says in the book that jazz musicians tended to be contemptuous of the young groups they backed, so I had assumed a studio conversation he quoted would be resistant to deciphering - that it was just an unlovely case of jazzers deliberately using esoteric terms to affirm their musical superiority over these upstarts:

"Right, right, I've got it now. And in that four-bar interlude we can play a 'we want Cantor' phrase underneath in unison."

"That’ll work," says one horn man to the other.
Actually there is an explanation which can be grasped even by the unmusical, as will be demonstrated below, although there is still an unlovely consequence of the chatter. Keyes writes that he and his friends laugh in bafflement at what has been said, not realising that the joke is on them: the musicians are about to take exclusive credit for what the group had worked out in acapella form during the long hours rehearsing and refining their songs:
Those "head" arrangements they were discussing in double-talk came from our heads, and we paid for them with our record royalties.
I posted about this in more detail last year, but it was not until those multitudinous Cantors glared at me in silent rebuke last night that I felt impelled to search more thoroughly online - and almost immediately found a reference to "we want Cantor" in the autobiography of George Benson.

Benson describes his puzzlement at the playing of Larry Smith, the saxophonist in his group in the early sixties:
He played a lot of notes, and a lot of those notes flat-out didn't make sense, especially in the context of our repertoire. See, we were strictly an R&B band, and the stuff Larry played, well, most of it wasn't R&B.
One night, however, Smith plays him a record:
You could call it a fast ballad or a slow swinger, and it featured an alto saxophonist floating above a lush orchestra. The arrangement was as straight-ahead as could be, but the sax player was filling up the space and playing lots of notes. And, as was the case with Larry, some of those notes were weird, but in the orchestral context, they made more sense.
The track is Just Friends from the Bird With Strings album:

Astonished that Benson hasn't heard Charlie Parker before, Smith insists he listen to it again:
And my entire life changed. By the time Parker made it through the melody, I understood that was the way music should be. The gorgeous arrangement, the complex harmonies, the heartfelt vibe, and the tangible emotion all combined to create something that even my untrained ears knew wasn't just a song but a piece of art ...
I remembered a conversation I had with Tom Collier [his stepfather] one afternoon while I was practicing. He listened to me for a few minutes, then said, "What's with all that 'We want Cantor' stuff you're playing?"

I had zero idea what he was talking about. "What do you mean by 'We want Cantor'?" I asked.

"You ever heard of Eddie Cantor?" he asked. Before I could answer, he said, "He's a Broadway superstar. Sometimes he would take too long to get on the bandstand, and the crowd would start chanting, 'We want Cantor! We want Cantor!' It got to be such a common thing that the band started to accompany the crowd, and they'd play a melody and some chord changes to go along with it." He hummed the melody, and it was a simple structure, the basis of almost every R&B song we played. He said, "That's what I mean by 'We want Cantor.' You don't have to play it that way."

I said, "Well, that's the way the song goes. I mean, how should I play it? That's the way it's written."

He said, "You can play something different from that. You can play anything you want."

I asked, "Like what?"

"Listen to Charlie Parker," he said.

I said, "That ain't telling me nothing."

He said, "Play chromatics."

"Chromatics?" I asked. "What the heck are chromatics?" He hummed me a chromatic scale. If you want to know what it sounds like, go to a piano, hit a key, then hit the key right next to that, then the next one, then the next one, and so on.

That wasn't a funky or bluesy sound, certainly not the kind of thing you'd hear at your typical R&B gig. I shook my head. "No. No sir. No way. That ain't working. That won't work.

"It depends on how you use them, George," he said. "Use them in the right place at the right time, and it'll work like a charm."

"Not where I play, man. Not at the bars."

He shook his head and said, "Just listen to Charlie Parker. It'll make sense then." (Note: When I heard Bird with Strings all those months later, it made a little more sense. It took a little bit of time for it to totally click.) 
This reminds me of a scene in Sven Klang's Combo, a Swedish film about a trad jazz band in the late fifties: a Parker-loving saxophonist joins them and there is a memorable scene where, playing for a dance, he suddenly decides to let fly with a solo. The dancers are not hostile, merely indifferent; they wait politely until normal service is resumed, and the act of defiance or artistic expression goes for nothing.

Benny Green, a saxophonist turned writer and broadcaster, wrote a highly enthusiastic review of the film in Punch, which makes it an even greater pity that as far as I know the film is not available on DVD - not in English, anyway. Even if you don't particularly like jazz it's the old story of a tightly knit group being pulled apart when a new element is introduced.

If you are unfamiliar with Kliph Nesteroff's work, he has written an excellent book called The Comedians which covers stand-up from its Vaudeville beginnings to the present day:

As its subtitle, visible above, might suggest, it is packed with the sort of detail which might reasonably be termed "un-dry". Yet for all the astonishing anecdotes and revelations there is still a clear sense of overall structure, of the movements and trends which shaped US stand-up over the decades. It was recommended to me by the British comedian and actor Freddie Davies, who has his own book to peddle, as can be seen elsewhere on this page.

Oh, apart from one further discovery while internetting. The Library of Congress possesses a 1933 cartoon entitled "We want Cantor!" It isn't reproduced online but there is a full description of the image:
A crowd of angry members of the "Loyal Order of Humorists of America," the "Gag Mens' Society," and the "Anti Gag Thief Association," storm the studios of the National Broadcasting Company, shouting, kicking, and biting as well as brandishing an assortment of weapons and tools.
So it seems plagiarism can be added to tardiness on the list of the banjo-eyed one's offences.

Related Post:

"Virtually mistake-free": a doo wop group in the studio

This discusses Johnny Keyes's memoir in more detail, along with a balancing account by bandleader and saxophonist Al Smith, veteran of countless doo wop recordings.

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