Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Herbie Nichols' "The Jazz Life" - Part 1

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[Minor updates made 16 Oct 2018]

Although practically ignored during his lifetime, Herbie Nichols is now widely regarded as an innovative and original composer, with a style reminiscent of Thelonious Monk or Andrew Hill. Nichols was famously profiled in 
Black Music: Four Lives (later reprinted as Four Lives in the Bebop Business) by A. B. Spellman, who gave extensive and valuable biographical info. He hinted at Nichols's literary inclinations, mentioning that he began writing poetry in the 40's. (p. 158, 1994 edition)

In addition, Nichols contributed at least 7 articles to the legendary Black newspaper The New York Age in 1941. These articles were titled "The Jazz Life"; the first four are published below. The rest of them will follow in another post. They provide a fascinating glimpse into New York show business, and especially the Black experience in this business, during the mid-late swing era. Nichols, born in 1919, was 22 years old when these articles were published.

The New York Age ceased publication in 1960, three years before Nichols passed away.

Disclaimer: I am not aware of whether Herbie Nichols' intellectual property is currently being managed by an estate or any legal entity. By publishing them here, I do so for educational purposes only. I am not claiming ownership of, and am not making any money from, his writings. If you have a legal claim to these writings and would like them removed from this blog, please let me know and I will oblige.

For further reading, check out Ethan Iverson's blog, which features an article of Nichols's from 1946 in Rhythm.

by Herbert H. Nichols
The New York Age

The average person goes to the dance hall, cabaret, musical revue or party for a good time and returns home exhausted. The musician is the composed person you meet on arriving and the composed one you leave when you make your departure. Aside from playing the part of the capable entertainer his appearance must remain impeccable and he too, must at all times appear to be enjoying himself. (His real attitude toward any proceeding, of course, is seldom made known to the public.)

Jazz, (or swing music,) is the prevalent type of music dispensed for dancing in the United States today. Few of us know how it evolved to its present state. One thing that is quite certain - and unfortunately so for the colored musician - is the fact that the incorruptible American jitterbug apparently believes that the supreme haven of this musical art lies in the hands of the colored bands. The overwhelming and repeated financial success that we have enjoyed in this field, I believe, proves this to be true.

Jazz artistry reigns supreme in our group. It has been this department's contention that when it comes to jitter-buggin' and swing music we stomp louder and more often than the other fellow, and apparently find more pleasure in so doing.

The jam session has finally come to the attention of our swing magazines. Some musicians would rather miss their sleep than pass up a chance to hear Roy (Little Jazz) Eldridge or The Hawk at a jam session. If you haven't heard pianists Art Tatum, Kersey, Marlowe or Phipps at such a session then you have missed a lot of powerful piano playing. To the jazz musician who wants to learn more about syncopation and who wants to stay in the groove, these sessions are more in the nature of attending school.

Every group of people in the world is exponent of some particular type of music or dancing. Naturally, if this music or dancing catches on with the public there is going to be many imitations. The people of Lapland, who have their own musical dances, ordinarily would not attempt to make lasting reforms either in the music or the dance form of the rhumba. However, if it were a matter of radio commercials, big time vaudeville dates, hotel jobs, moving picture work, fat recording contracts and other million dollar considerations one wouldn't regard the situation as ordinary any longer. As a matter of fact with this always in mind the average Spanish person would be better prepared for the ensuing mutilation of his beloved rhumba.

Jazz is a big business and cannot be divorced from the Negro. It is still a lucrative field and if taken more seriously by some can be made to yield even more of that green stuff - yes indeed!

[See part three for July 12th, 1941]

by Herbert H. Nichols
The New York Age

The mainstay of the night-life world is the night club. For the most part these are tinsel palaces that glitter and hold forth with much seeming gayety. From the quaint glass stirrers to the quaint inhabitants, these institutions belie their real purpose - that of making money.

Some old-timers impressed me very much with one statement: "In the night club racket," they said, "the ends and the means are never confused as in the case of other businesses." Here's a situation where the salesmanship is so all-inclusive and so much remain at stake that only a hawk - a night hawk, a hardboiled one at that - can reap a profit and stay in business for any length of time.

Night club operators had their heyday during the bustling "twenties" and "thirties". This was the period that witnessed prohibition with its speakeasies and bath-tub gin. Money flowed freely and was made all up and down the line.

How it was made is another matter. Earnings came under the heading of various fees. How else could they be explained? Many bootleggers owned speakeasies and supplied these with their own liquor. This was an illegal but highly profitable and effective example of the vertical combination. On looking back on all this you wonder how it all came to pass.

There are two ways that a night club may take in money: by means of a cover charge and by selling various services. A night club is allowed to charge you its own fixed price for services rendered. This is legal. The government does not control retail prices, except in cases of emergency.

To start a night club you get in touch with License Commissioner Moss. Right away you're fingerprinted and mugged (photo taken). You'll have to take out cabaret and liquor licenses. There is also a license issued for the sale of cigarettes. The fire, health and police departments must give you a clean bill of health. And then there are the musicians' and performers' unions that may compel you to sign contracts with them. Bear in mind that we have only cited the licenses that must be gotten, which also call for periodic renewals. It is no wonder that some clubs blackball roustabouts and other ne'er-do-wells. They simply aim to insure a good night's receipts.

Many cliques are formed in this business. Because of the higher rents that are expected of night clubs and the seasonal rise and fall of business, a dependable clientele must be assured. Whatever is made during a good season which in some instances lasts for several weeks or months may have to be depended upon to tide one over a slack period which may last several times as long.

The night club visitor looks forward to the floor show as the climax of the night's entertainment. To the manager, this comes as an anti-climax. He depends on eagle-eyed, sure-footed waiters with a gift of gab to bring in large orders between those periods of loud entertainment. All that he seeks in a floor show is brevity, bounce and balance.

A successful operator strives for individuality in his club. From the tableware to the way the band stand is set up, nothing is overlooked. This calls for a versatile person who may be called upon at times to play the role of interior decorator and stage hand, accountant and efficiency expert, chorus director and dancer, and who, moreover, is expected to be the social glad-hander on all occasions.

Night club operation is a singular vocation. The main commodities are glamour and gayety. Fashion and style changes are first seen in the niteries. They are the show places of the nation - the social marts. It is the night club operator's business to supply the fanfare and to reap any and all possible profits.

by Herbert H. Nichols
The New York Age

War is a boom time for songwriters. We recall that it was during and following the last war that the jazz life came into being. Entertainers did all right for themselves during that period. It was the goal of the average musician to cross the big pond, and many of them did just that. And it was during that period that Harlem became known as the bohemian section of New York. This situation almost brought a permanent vogue in literature. Such writers as Carl Van Vechten, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay did much to publicize this era.

It was during that era that the first efforts to organize Negro musicians got under way. Local 310 was a Negro Musicians' local. The Clef Club was on the downgrade, but still maintained its headquarters in West 53rd Street. Such other clubs as the Bandbox and the Rhythm Club, operated by the late Bert Hall, came into being.

The parlor social era, which followed, won't be soon forgotten. During that period the kazoo became a full-fledged instrument, right alongside the venerable violin. At the average party you would find the kazoo player teamed with the pianist, the drums or some other instrument being added if the sponsors felt like oversporting themselves. The great parlor social piano player was "Fats" Waller. If you listen to his Bluebird recording of "The Joint is Jumpin'" you'll see what I mean.

The whole complexion of show life has changed in a few years. From dramatic stock, the Lafayette went to colored musical revues, with such names as Leroy Smith, Sam Wooding, Drake and Walker, the San Domingans and the Smarter Set Shows featured. The old Lincoln Theater brought out Mamie Smith and other blues singers of that day.

The small cabarets and dance halls were twice as active during this period. Everybody had a job and belonged to some social club. Some of the orchestras that catered to these groups were the Congo Knights, Ernie Ferguson and his Midnight Ramlers, Gus Creigh.

Harlem used to hum in those days with the social activity centered in the neighborhood from 133rd to 136th street - Baron Wilkins Club, the Pirates Cove, the Dunbar, the Nest, the Turf Club, the Checker Club, the Saratoga Club, Connie's Inn, the Bronze Studio, and the 101 Ranch are a few of the night spots that are no more.

Will history repeat itself in this direction?

by Herbert H. Nichols
The New York Age

Chappie Willet, head of the only Negro booking agency on Broadway, would like to see colored sets multiply and become more varied in text. From his advantageous position in the heart of the downtown theatrical district he is able to realize and appreciate the growing bemand for colored acts more than anyone else.

The "Bye Sisters," young singing and dancing trio now appearing nightly at the Elks Rendezvous, are under his personal management. In a fast stepping revue, headed by the inimitable Willie Bryant, they more than hold their own. These girls have personality plus, and after you hear their hep musical version of "Fuzzy-Wuzzy" and "It's Hurry, Hurry, Hurry with a Solid Jive" you'll agree that they are a welcome addition to the entertainment world.

Chappie Willet's business office and studios are located at 156 West 44th street. Besides the booking agency angle, which takes up a lot of his time, he personally supervises a recording studio and a music school. All this in addition to being [among] the most prolific arrangers in the music business. Because of his policy of treating the little fellow and the big fellow alike, he has been able to build a reputation for himself that is unique in music circles.

He has kept pretty busy these last few years. He has written the music for many musical comedy shows and night club revues, including those of the Cotton Club, the Plantation and "The Hot Mikado." He has had wide experience with bands, having done much arranging for Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Lucky Millinder and many others. He has also done work for Gene Krupa, including the writing of his theme song.

Chappie Willet does most of his arranging for stage acts, practically dominating this field in particular. Such acts as the Nicholas Brothers and the dancing DeMarcos got Chappie Willet for new arrangements whenever they're in town. Whenever you hear the famed Peters Sister or Avia Andrew bringing down a critical Broadway audience with applause, the chances are that the fine accompanying arrangement to which they are singing was written by and rehearsed in conjunction with Chappie Willet.

Mr. Willet deserves a lot of credit for his pioneering efforts in many fields of the jazz life, also for his avowed interest in all newcomers.


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