6. Jazz titles

Posted on 18/01/2017

The Train and the River by Jimmy Guiffre is a 1950’s jazz song title. In those days jazz tunes could be popular, as Ray Charles proved and many others confirmed. The Train and the River is a haunting song that I have remembered ever since hearing it some time in the 50’s on the Voice of America, then just beginning its career of providing jazz to the  wider world under the booming umbrella of Willis C Conover. A most memorable DJ, before the days of DJ’s.

Here he is in 1981, 25 years after I started listening to him, but he is still a magisterial voice:

Conover became a celeb in the cultural desert of Eastern Europe, then run by the Soviet Union. It is ironic that later on the USSR claimed to have invented jazz, somewhere down in what is now Ukraine I believe.

It is true that some of the wild gypsy music of the Caucasus has a sort of atonal jazz feel to it, but I dont think its practitioners would regard it as jazz. They don’t have the idea of variations on a theme, or riffs to relate them to the heart of jazz. And of course the Blues, and the blue notes.

There are many beautiful and memorable jazz songs but mostly without lyrics, or with lyrics grafted onto them after they were established as standards. Though the titles are often lovely, as in the song I began with, the title is pretty much immaterial to the musical inspiration.

Or, equally effective, provide so clear an image you dont really need the words: ‘willow weep for me’ and ‘Moanin’ for instance. Here is Billie Holiday, whose versions define the song. Here vocal style was modelled on that of the tenor player Lester Young, who can be heard on the later part of the Willis Conover video above. Her voice was a ruin by the time of this recording in 1954, but very moving, always.


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