Birth of a Band
Notes on the Gestation
and Infancy of
and his Original
21st Century Review
By Bradley Williams
I. Setting the stage
I had been pianist and arranger with Woody Herman for two years when, in 1986, I met Karen Bopp, the girl of my dreams. Life on the road quickly lost its charm so I packed my last suitcase and settled in Chicago, Karen's adopted home. I'd always been fond of the city. The club scene was booming then and I was soon a regular sideman for some of the great talent here, sharing the stage, and learning nightly, from the likes of Von Freeman and Arthur Hoyle. My affection for the American Song found an outlet when working with the many fine vocalists in the area. Touring artists like Sheila Jordan and Mark Murphy also provided occasional gigs.
Income from gigs and part-time teaching at local colleges, and in our home, allowed my wife (a psychotherapist by training) to stay at home with our young children. This was almost unheard of—a family of four being supported by a jazz musician.
I had secured a regular solo piano job at the Gold Star Sardine Bar which soon evolved into a full-time position as musical director and accompanist. This posh Streeterville club, presided over by the colorful Bill Allen, and his partner Susan Anderson, introduced me to vocalists Spider Saloff and Eden Atwood, who were to become my longtime musical partners. (One evening Tony Bennett sat in.) The audiences, charmed by the atmosphere, paid us careful attention, rare in clubs these days.
Mr. Allen strove to create the kind of excitement that he experienced as a young man in the heyday of Chicago jazz. Sitting on the piano bench, watching seasoned performers practice their craft, I began to learn the fine art of speaking to an audience and structuring a performance so that they could really get their ears (and eyes) into it.
I began assuming the Master of Ceremonies role at the piano, welcoming patrons, introducing musicians and vocalists, and setting up the numbers—as comic relief, even singing an occasional song. I was enjoying myself and the people seemed to go for it as well.
One fateful evening, a Minneapolis businessman buttonholed me and asked if I had ever considered fronting a show outside of the Gold Star. I was intrigued by the idea—the end of my tenure at the club was imminent—and he offered to put up some capital. I told him I would start the process on my end.
I was 34-years-old and a veteran of countless other people's bands. Now I had the opportunity to put together my own band—and show—on a significant, but as yet ill-defined, scale. As the saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for..."
II. Recruiting the Troops
I was excited about custom-designing an assembly of performers to my own specifications, using my own arrangements. I had been writing since high school and my portfolio included five or six charts for Woody's band and many small-group arrangements. The Gold Star had been a great laboratory in which to develop trio and quartet arrangements, some of which I had transferred from vocalist to vocalist.
While with the "Herd," I had observed first-hand the economic challenges and organizational hassles of managing a full-size 17-piece big band. The sounds I had in mind could be achieved with a seven-piece unit based on the efficient, effective, Ellington small groups: two reed players, one on alto or baritone sax, and one on tenor or soprano sax, who could each double on flute and clarinet; plus a trumpet/flugelhorn player alongside a trombonist, both with a full complement of mutes. Add three rhythm; piano, acoustic bass and drumset. Working with flexible performers, a broad palette of textures would be available.
There is no denying the appeal of a vocalist, but in club settings, even with a strong performer, I had observed that the audience's interest usually declined noticeably after the first few numbers. Off the bandstand, singers sometimes became isolated from the rest of the band, a situation that could create friction. A singer's concerns had more to do with occupying the spotlight and remembering the words, rather than keeping track of chord changes, form, and other musical nuances.
I wondered what it would be like to feature several vocalists, with distinctive styles, not only as soloists but as a vocal section. They could also mix and match for duos with each other, or with me. I resolved to add a three-member vocal team to the seven instrumentalists.
I needed a good-sized room to debut the show. I had frequently worked at Kate Smith's Bop Shop on Division Street, where she featured an eccentric blend of music, theater and poetry. She had a full-length performance room and art gallery that would provide a striking setting.
Kate reacted enthusiastically to my plan of combining the horn-based excitement of Woody's band with the cabaret charm that we had cultivated at the Gold Star. She offered me a regular Tuesday night for a workshop and free rehearsal space.
I had christened the show "Bradley Williams and his Original 21st Century Review." Now I would approach the strongest, most exciting performers I knew.
High on the list was Rich Fudoli. I was fascinated by the originality of his style and by the fact that he always seems to be playing directly from his heart. He also shifts effortlessly among tenor and soprano saxophones, flute, and clarinet. He would be the equivalent of four musicians in one—four very intense musicians.
I approached Fudoli, promising him an unusual and stimulating setting that would match his talents. He responded, "This sounds like the project of a lifetime." Then, "You're sure you're not just looking for a warm body?" I assured him that I was serious and, to my delight, he agreed to participate.
I added other highly individual artists. Trombonist Sean Flanigan came from a theater family and brought a strong sense of stage presence and humor. in addition to a warm, sassy playing style. Chris Lega, on baritone sax, clarinet and flute, had always been a favorite alto player in various Ellington settings. On trumpet I engaged a young former student of mine, Bob Lechowicz. He had played in experimental small groups at the college where I had been teaching and would take chances that others might not.
Our first drummer was Michael Friedman, a close friend and sideman at the Gold Star who is now heading his own Chicago record company, Premonition. On bass and tuba we had the versatile Dan Anderson.
The vocalists, of course, were critical. I had recently become acquainted with Anita 'Penny' Jeffries, a minister and former funeral parlor vocalist who also had considerable club and Gospel experience. After some gentle persuasion I convinced her to give it a go.
During my stint at the Gold Star I had watched Eden Atwood develop from a lanky 22-year-old kid into a sexy, confident performer. She had returned from the west coast, where she had acted in a soap opera, and agreed to come on board. Two down, one to go.
I recruited Aisha De Haas to round out the vocal trio. She is an excellent singer with extensive stage background, as might expected since she is the daughter of (bassist to the stars) Eddie De Haas and (vocalist) Geraldine De Haas.
Our rehearsals at the Bop Shop were set to begin.
III. Putting it Together
Tuesday night workshops began February, 1995. Karen, my wife, felt that jazz performances sometimes seemed to exclude the uninformed observer, so we provided small written programs for the audience, on which we solicited their feedback. One night a program was turned in with some particularly creative short poems scrawled on the back. I tracked down the author, Garrett Anderson, and he became our resident poet.
The whole band contributed material. Penny Jeffries introduced classic Gospel numbers such as "His Eye is on the Sparrow," which culminated with the entire cast joining in. Aisha De Haas sang a mildly bawdy song called "Some Cats Know," by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, songwriters of Elvis's hit "Hound Dog", which I scored lewdly for baritone sax and insinuating trombone. [Ed.—Stoller is married to Corky Hale, who writes about her relationship with Frank Sinatra in JazzGram.]
Eden had previously performed a couple of frantic vaudeville routines that seemed to fit well in the Review format. Bill Allen gave me a tape of a jumpin' old 'Hot Lips' Page number called "Ain't No Flies on Me," which I crooned with Aisha De Haas as the foil. I also sang lead on "Lonely at the Top," a Randy Newman composition that had always tickled me with its humor and mournful clarinets.
I adapted arrangements that had evolved at the Gold Star and scored them for the larger group. These included: a boogaloo version of "Lulu's Back in Town," with the three vocalists trading lines; an adaptation of a 1928 Ellington composition called "Black Beauty"; and a version of David Raksin's haunting theme to the 1952 Academy-Award-winning film, "The Bad and the Beautiful" which featured Chris Lega's alto. [Ed.—we expect, within the next month or so, to present here exclusive excerpts from composer Raksin's memoirs-in-progress.]
Midway through our rehearsals, Eden Atwood resumed her Gold Star appearances and decided to leave, referring me to her friend, Gingi Lahera. Gingi is a brave, creative performer with a pure hypnotic voice, who dropped into the group like a perfect puzzle piece.
Gingi and (trumpeter) Bob Lechowicz did a short skit that centered around his incessant dreams about a sexy actress. The text was written by the above-mentioned Garrett Anderson, who subsequently (and reluctantly) became our lighting director. As an eerie backdrop for the reading of poetry, I wrote "The Drunk's Song."
"For Woody" was a raucous New Orleans blues dedicated to my former boss. I also penned a little island number with an alternating meter called, "Calypso," during which our singers would go into the audience and encourage people to dance.
At the outset we experimented extensively with performance-art-type routines. One was based on a joke about an Indian Maiden and a Young Brave who fell in love from opposite banks of a mysteriously-named lake. Sean Flanigan and Gingi pantomimed the two characters as I told the extended joke, while Richie and Chris played flute behind each to mirror their actions. We called this "The Indian Story."
In "Scream Stories" band members would tell frightening tales as others improvised ominously behind them, culminating in a collective scream. In "Forest of Voices" I acted as a conductor/sculptor and summoned musicians and vocalists out front in free vocal improvisation.
Just as I thought that things were coming along nicely, the Minneapolis businessman who had backed us financially came to check out our project. It turned out that he had distinctly different ideas about the direction in which the group should be going. I told him that the nucleus had been formed, that I was committed to seeing my vision through. I returned most of his investment and assumed the financial burden myself, with some help from my mother, Judy Shields (who's responsible for my musical obsessions anyway).
IV. The Opening
My ultimate goal wasn't to support an off-night rehearsal band—although we enjoyed the development process and had made a little money charging a light cover. The next step was a big, and necessary, one.
Kate Smith and I planned to open the show on regular Friday nights beginning in May, 1995. She called her press contacts and I spread the word, but we weren't sure we had conveyed what to expect. We had created something more like a play or musical than a jazz show. I was on pins and needles, wondering, "How would it go over?" "Was the club scene ready for our act?"
Just before opening our personnel changed. Dan DeLorenzo, my bass-playing friend from the Gold Star, and the fiery young drummer Anthony Pinciotti, newly arrived from Florida, joined us. We were ready to hit.
Bradley Williams and his Original 21st Century Review opened Friday, May 5th, to a comfortably full house. In attendance was Chicago Tribune' jazz critic Howard Reich. The band played fearlessly. The ladies sang their hearts out. When it was over we received a standing ovation, and flowers. We were elated. We felt it really could work! Now we anxiously awaited the reviews.
"Rambling about." There, in black and white, mercifully buried in the back pages of the entertainment section, was Howard Reich's review. The news wasn't good. Mr. Reich hadn't stayed around for the standing ovation and didn't offer one of his own. He seemed to enjoy the music but judged the extra-musical activities overbearing. He commented unpleasantly about a couple of the singers, then complimented several of the musicians, but added, "Their efforts alone, however, cannot make this show work."