“Blues” from Lenox Avenue
Composed and arranged by William Grant Still.
Recorded by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra for Victor on December 4, 1940 in Hollywood.
Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: Billy Butterfield, George “Jumbo” Wendt and Jack Cathcart; Jack Jenney and Vernon Brown, trombones; Les Robinson, first alto saxophone; Neely Plumb, alto saxophone; Jerry Jerome and Clarence “Bus” Bassey, tenor saxophones; Johnny Guarnieri, piano; Al Hendrickson, guitar; Jud DeNaut, bass; Nick Fatool, drums; Truman Boardman, Ted Klages, Bill Brower, Bob Morrow, Alex Beller, Eugene Lamas, violins; Alan Harshman and Keith Collins, violas; Fred Goerner, cello.
The story Part One – Billy Still.
Lenox Avenue is a series of ten orchestral episodes and a finale built on scenes its composer, William Grant Still, had witnessed in Harlem. It was composed in 1937 as a commission by CBS radio for orchestra, chorus and radio announcer. The music critic Deems Taylor was retained by CBS to essentially decide which American composers would receive commissions to create compositions especially for radio. Eventually, six commissions were granted, with Still receiving one of them. The narration for Lenox Avenue was written by Verna Arvey. She began to work with Still in 1934 as his secretary and musical assistant, as she was a capable pianist. They married in early 1939. The first performance of Lenox Avenue was broadcast nationally on CBS radio on May 23, 1937, with the CBS concert orchestra conducted by Howard Barlow. It was broadcast again over CBS on October 17, 1937. A related ballet version was composed in 1938 and presented in Los Angeles, where Still lived. (Above right: William Grant Still in 1939.)
What is little-known however, is that Still did not create the music for Lenox Avenue from scratch to satisfy the CBS commission. Like many composers before him (and after), he borrowed from himself: “During Still’s short time in Los Angeles in 1929–30 (with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra), he visited the Club Alabam on Central Avenue on several occasions. While he did not actively participate in Los Angeles’s nightlife when he returned there in the 1934 to live, his early visits and memories of what took place on Central Avenue must have greatly affected him and his friends to a degree that they decided to write a commentary on black life there. However, what was supposed to be a piece celebrating and documenting life on Central Avenue (eventually) became the (suite called) Lenox Avenue (1937). …One of Still’s projects after completing Blue Steel [his first opera] was a musical portrayal of Central Avenue, the center of African American life in Los Angeles. (It was) probably intended for a film production. Something of a mystery surrounds this score. (Still’s friend Harold) Forsythe agreed to provide a scenario in 1935; the original idea was very likely his. Still initially offered it to Howard Hanson for a ballet production at the Eastman School of Music, but then withdrew it. Not long after this, Still became one of six composers commissioned by the CBS radio network to compose a work specifically designed for (performance on) radio. Central Avenue was quickly revised into a suite specifically for broadcast, becoming (about) New York’s Lenox Avenue, scoring one of a series of national successes that came to Still in the first fifteen years of his Los Angeles residence.” (1)
Lenox Avenue is a main north-south thoroughfare in Harlem, New York City. It lies one block west of Fifth Avenue and is now also known as Malcolm X Boulevard.
The sections of Lenox Avenue are:
- The Crap Game
- The Flirtation
- The Fight
- The Law
- Dance of the Boys
- Dance of the Man Down South
- The Old Man (The Philosopher)
- The Mission
- The House Rent Party (including “Blues”)
- The Orator
I have often wondered how William Grant Still came into the world of Artie Shaw, or vice-versa. Despite my considerable efforts to get information about this, I have failed. The two biographical works about William Grant Still that are in my library (2) contain almost no references to Shaw. One, a quasi memoir by Verna Arvey, Still’s second wife, has only one reference to Shaw in it. When recalling the period in early 1940, she stated: “”Artie Shaw’s entry into our lives came at about this time. He wanted to record six sides …and asked Billy to make the orchestrations. Of the six arrangements, more than one became famous, and one ‘Frenesi,’ became …what Shaw called his second or third best selling record .”(3) I am sure that it was more complicated than that.
I must include a brief summary of William Grant Still’s life in the period from the mid-1910s (he was born in 1895), through the 1930s, as the events of those years largely shaped Still’s career in music.
Still matriculated at Wilberforce University in southwest Ohio, starting in 1911 at age 16, departing in 1915. (At right: William Grant Still with other students at Wilberforce University – 1915. Still is the smiling young man holding a cello case.) During that time, he met a stunningly beautiful fellow student named Grace Bundy. She was somewhat aggressive in her pursuit of him, and they were married in the autumn of 1915. It was a troubled marriage from the beginning largely because of the interference in it of Still’s mother, and Bundy’s parents. Nevertheless, it produced four children in the period from the mid teens through the mid-1920s.
Also, Ms. Bundy was an exceedingly headstrong young woman who, with the cooperation of her parents, sought to dominate Still, whose musical talents were blossoming during the early years of their marriage. Soon after their wedding, Grace and her parents persuaded Still to move into the Bundy family home in Danville, Kentucky. This place offered Still no outlets for his music. He began to correspond with W.C. Handy, who composed the “St. Louis Blues,” and became known as “the Father of the Blues,” who was then living in Memphis, Tennessee. Handy asked Still to come to Memphis for the summer of 1916 to pursue various musical opportunities with him. Still jumped at this chance, much to the dismay of his wife and her parents. His time with Handy was spent performing in Handy’s band. (Still then played cello and oboe.) He became fascinated with Handy’s various experiments with the Blues, and began internalizing parts of Handy’s musical aesthetic. Handy was very supportive of Still obtaining more musical education, and became an ongoing mentor and friend for the young composer. Still eventually (in 1917) decided to enroll at Oberlin College in Ohio, and study music. The following year, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he remained until World War I ended in late 1918. He returned briefly to Oberlin after his military service, but was summoned to New York by Handy in 1919. (Grace Bundy is pictured above. This photo appears to have been taken while Still was in Los Angeles with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra.(4)
Still’s time in New York (1919-1934) marked the beginning of his steady involvement with popular music, which he pursued simultaneously with his ongoing study of concert music. In the period 1919-1921 he again worked in Handy’s band, but was also employed by Handy’s music publishing firm, (Harry) Pace and Handy Music Co. (4A) In 1921, he joined the orchestra of Eubie Blake to perform in the show Shuffle Along. At various times in the years 1921 through 1923, Still studied composition with George Chadwick, and modern orchestral music and composition with Edgard Varese. In 1924, he completed his first major work, From the Land of Dreams. Between then and February of 1929, he was extremely active in New York as an arranger for many popular entertainers of the day, while continuing his pursuits in concert music.
Still was employed by Paul Whiteman for one year, from February 1929 to February 1930. Still’s basic role with Whiteman was “…to provide orchestrations for Whiteman’s regular weekly radio broadcasts.”(5) His experiences with Whiteman were positive and lucrative. Still was able to continue his growth as a composer of concert music while he worked with Whiteman.
The Paul Whiteman orchestra at Buffalo Bill Cody’s grave in Colorado – probably early June 1929.(6) The elderly woman at Whiteman’s right is his mother, Elfrida. To Whiteman’s left is Frank Trumbauer. William Grant Still is at the extreme right.
After leaving Whiteman in early 1930, Still composed the suite Africa, and his first symphony, called Afro-American. He later commented that he felt that he had arrived at maturity as a composer in the year 1930. He was 35 years old.
It is also significant that Still fell in love with pre-freeway and pre-smog southern California on his first visits there with Paul Whiteman, and resolved to return there to live at the earliest possible time. But that time was not 1930. Still was unknown in California in 1930, but well-known in New York. Consequently, he returned to New York in early 1930 to work.
Despite the creative fulfillment Still experienced by composing the concert works mentioned above (and others), he found it difficult to earn much money through the performances of them because he was unknown in the concert music world, and most of the gatekeepers of that world were not very supportive of his music. Thus he returned to the lucrative anonymity of popular music, this time working with pianist/singer/composer of popular songs Willard Robison. From 1931 to 1934, Still arranged for Robison’s network (first CBS, then NBC) radio program called The Deep River Hour. It was in that employment that Still renewed acquaintance with many musicians whom he had worked with in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra who had by then begun working in radio, and met many other talented musicians, including (this is my informed speculation) the ubiquitous trumpeter Mannie Klein, and a young clarinetist/alto saxophonist, Art Shaw.
It seems that Still’s wife, Grace Bundy, joined him in New York, probably in the early 1920s with their children. Their uneasy relationship continued until 1932, when she gathered their four children (and her mother), and moved to Canada. Still never saw her again, though he did see his children periodically, and supported them financially until they reached adulthood.
While earning a very good income from The Deep River Hour, Still continued in his concert music pursuits, gathering supporters along the way including composers Howard Hanson and Randall Thompson. In a move that Art Shaw undoubtedly would have approved of, Still quit the Robison radio show in mid-May 1934, and headed to Los Angeles, where he arrived on May 24, and would spend the remainder of his life. Still had received a Guggenheim Fellowship in early 1934. That is what enabled him to leave his employment with Robison.
Still worked mostly on composing his own music through the balance of the 1930s, though he did have at least one fraught experience writing music for a Hollywood film studio, Columbia Pictures. Still’s difficulties resulted from both the absurdities of music department politics, and racial discrimination. After that experience, though he continued to receive calls from Hollywood film composers to assist them in various ways, he basically stayed away from any involvement with the creation of film music. His objective was to write concert music, and get it performed. Despite systemic racism in the world of concert music, Still did that with considerable success through the late 1930s.
Still was invited to conduct some of his own works at the Hollywood Bowl (shown above left) on July 23, 1936. This was the first time an Afro-American conducted a major orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic) in the United States.
By the time Artie Shaw approached Still to arrange six tunes for a Victor recording session in Hollywood that was to take place on March 3, 1940, Still was quite busy with various projects in his career as a composer and conductor of concert music. Nevertheless, Shaw, who could be the epitome of charm and persuasiveness when he wanted to be, convinced Still that he could do what Shaw wanted him to do relatively easily and quickly (Still was always a fast writer of arrangements of popular music), and be well compensated for his efforts.
The story Part Two – Shaw to Still.
The question that remains unanswered is: how and why did Artie Shaw come to the idea that he wanted William Grant Still to write all the arrangements for his March 3, 1940 Victor recording session? Based on the factual information above, this idea, from the standpoint of what was then accepted as “swing” music, made little sense. Having a man with Still’s qualifications and experience write five pop tune arrangements, (and one as it turned out, on a “classical” theme, that being Edward MacDowell’s “A Deserted Farm” from Woodland Sketches (6A) (not issued until 1981), which was a literal expansion of MacDowell’s piano score to fit the instruments of the orchestra Shaw would use on March 3), seemed to many like overkill. Using Still on this project would be, to employ one of Shaw’s favorite metaphors, “like shooting flies with a machine gun.”
In searching the various periodicals that were running stories about Artie Shaw in early 1940, many of which included lengthy, breathless accounts of his marriage in February of 1940 to movie starlet Lana Turner, his previous pursuit of movie starlet Betty Grable, and of him saving a young woman in the surf off the coast of Acapulco, Mexico when he was there at the end of 1939 and into early 1940, I was able to find a few clues that suggest what Shaw had in mind musically as he approached the March 3, 1940 record date: “’The general idea,’ he says, ‘is not to get away from swing music but to present dance music with more color than is possible with the usual brass and saxophone setup that has perhaps, due to constant usage, become monotonous. I will attempt to have a swing band playing as such, augmented by legitimate instruments playing legitimately.’ ‘If possible,’ Shaw declares, ‘I should like to work this idea into a much needed laboratory for the creation and development of musical effects and innovations necessary to the growth of swing which, I contend, is a greatly misunderstood idiom.'”(7)
Well! In essence, what Shaw wanted to do was to broaden the scope of what swing music was then, and to do that, he was going to use “legitimate instruments playing legitimately.” For most people, this meant that he was going to use strings, which he did. But it also meant that he was going to use, at least on the March 3 recording session, other “legitimate” instruments, by which I think he meant instruments usually used in a concert music setting, like the oboe, flute and French horn. (Shaw also used an instrument that was equally at home in dance bands and philharmonic orchestras – the bass clarinet.)
When Shaw returned to Los Angeles in January of 1940, he was incapacitated by the broken bone in his leg sustained in his rescue of the young woman in Mexico. This forced him to be far less active than he normally was. He settled into the house he purchased located at 1426 Summit Ridge Drive, atop Coldwater Canyon, allowed interviews with numerous journalists, and began to think about creating music that could be recorded to satisfy in part the contract he had with Victor Records that extended until March of 1941.
It is at this point that Lennie Hayton enters the story. Shaw had known Hayton since probably the mid-1930s as a result of both of their involvements in radio in New York, Hayton as a conductor/arranger and Shaw as an instrumentalist. Shaw himself stated that Hayton was a visitor at his Summit Ridge Drive house on occasion in early 1940.(8) I think it likely that one of the first people Shaw discussed his musical ambitions with then was Lennie Hayton, who had recently come to Hollywood to start what would turn out to be a long and productive relationship with M-G-M. (8a) It is also significant that Lennie Hayton (like William Grant Still), had worked in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra at the end of the 1920s. Artie Shaw, like many young musicians in 1940, understood Whiteman’s large role in the development of American popular music, and he admired Whiteman’s savvy as a showman and successful businessman over many years. He also had grown up listening to Whiteman’s music, much of which he did not like. But what he did like about Whiteman’s musical policy was that it was broad enough to encompass a bit of jazz on the one side, pop music in the middle, and a bit of concert music on the other side. Lennie Hayton also understood all of this. I will speculate that Shaw asked Hayton to make some arrangements for his upcoming March 3 recording session, but for whatever reason, Hayton was unable at that moment to do so. I will speculate again that at this point, Hayton suggested that Shaw contact William Grant Still to do it. (Hayton is shown in his roles as pianist and arranger in a photo from 1934.)
The story – Part Three: The Shaw-Still dynamic, musically and otherwise: You will excuse me if I skip over the music that was written by William Grant Still and recorded by Artie Shaw at his March 3, 1940 Victor recording session, including Still’s delightful arrangement of “Frenesi.” (There will be a post here at swingandbeyond.com about that in the near future.) But what happened between Shaw and Still after that recording date, and after “Frenesi” became a huge commercial success, is far more interesting from a musical and indeed a historical standpoint.
Generally, I am not one to gratuitously ascribe altruistic or benevolent behavior to Artie Shaw. He was very often an exceedingly self-centered person, and one who could be unfair and indeed cruel in the statements he made about people he had been involved with during his musical career. This was especially true in Shaw’s dotage, which lasted for decades (he died at age 94). But there was nevertheless a distinct part of his personality, especially before the 1950s, when he was a victim of hysterical and unfair Red-baiting and McCarthyism, that was truly altruistic and benevolent. In the wake of the immense success of his recording of “Frenesi,” I think that Shaw was moved to seek out ways in which he could reciprocate in some fashion his good fortune with William Grant Still. In light of how their professional relationship evolved through 1940, this first was manifested in Shaw commissioning a few more arrangements from Still. These included Still’s salute to his mentor, W.C. Handy,”Chantez Les Bas,” and Still’s delightful settings for two non-ASCAP Latin tunes, “Marinella,” and “Danza Lucumi.” Shaw recorded all of these Still arrangements in 1940.
But as anyone who knows anything about the financial ramifications of being an arranger understands, no matter how gifted or successful the arranger, or how successful his/her arrangements may be in the commercial marketplace, an arranger’s work is compensated by a one-time fee for services performed. That business arrangement has very little and usually nothing to do with the money the performer may earn from a hit recording of the arranger’s work. Accordingly as the success of Artie Shaw’s recording of “Frenesi” escalated through 1940, Shaw eventually arrived at another method of directing some of fruits of that success to Still.
Although no one who could have been privy to any conversations between Artie Shaw and William Grant Still in 1940 is still alive, I do not think it unlikely that such a conversation, perhaps on the telephone, might have gone like this:
AS: Bill, I know that you have made a number of arrangements for me of other peoples’ work, and they all are wonderful. But what I would ask of you now is to go back over your own compositions, and see if you can find anything that you could adapt for my orchestra.
WGS: Well Artie, let me think about that for a while. I’ll get back to you.
AS: Great. I will look forward to that.
WGS: Artie, I have found something that I think will work. It is the section of my suite of music called Lenox Avenue, and it is called quite simply “The Blues.” Do you want me to prepare a piano reduction of that for you?
AS: No Bill. If I can’t rely on your judgment by this point in our relationship, I will never be able to. Just put together an arrangement for us that you think will fit what we do. But as you know, I have to retain the right to adjust whatever you prepare…
WGS: Yes, I understand that. I know that you usually want arrangements that are three to three and a half minutes long. Do you mind if I go longer?
AS: I don’t mind at all. The only limitation I suggest is that it not be longer than what can fit on two sides of a regular ten-inch record. That would be between six and seven minutes, with a break in the middle.
WGS: Are you entertaining ideas of recording whatever I come up with?
AS: I guess I’ll have to see what you come up with. If it’s as great as I think it’s going to be, I will certainly record it.
WGS: That would be wonderful.
The music Still submitted to Shaw, which was indeed recorded by Shaw, resulted in Still receiving probably more composer royalties than he received for any other piece of music he ever composed.
What is fascinating is to compare Still’s “The Blues” section of Lenox Avenue with what was eventually recorded by Artie Shaw. (This can be done by following link (A) at the bottom of this post.) I can say with certainty that the mood in both performances is the same, and that was of utmost importance to Still. Structurally, Still retained the character of the original, but allowed the soloists in Shaw’s orchestra to provide their personal musical perspectives. This resulted in a number of delightful contrasts, and some fine jazz.
The performance begins with pianist Johnny Guarnieri, a most complete musician, (shown at right in 1940) playing what I am sure was written for him by Still. He does this against a marching 2/4 pulse centered on Nick Fatool’s drums. Then the four saxophones join the march. Trumpeter Billy Buttefield (pictured below left), with a plunger over his pixie straight-muted trumpet, engages in a bluesy dialog with Guarnieri for a chorus. Maestro Shaw then plays two heartfelt choruses of jazz on his clarinet. Notice how creatively Guarnieri accompanies him. He is followed by lead alto saxophonist Les Robinson (shown below right) for two choruses, with the second being especially soulful, and played against oo-ah brass. Still’s writing for the backgrounds for these solos is spare. A small crescendo is reached with the saxophones animating Still’s blues themes with great feeling, and a brief burst by trumpeter Butterfield.
Part one of the performance moves to its quiet conclusion as Guarnieri returns for the slow decrescendo. The mildly dissonant strings chord at the end is a lovely musical touch.
Part two begins with the orchestra playing more forcefully, and in 4/4 meter, open brass answered by surging saxophones. Tenor saxophonist Jerry Jerome (below left) offers some soulful jazz for two choruses. Still’s use of the strings behind Jerome is minimal but effective. He is followed by Guarnieri playing jazz for one chorus. Vernon Brown gets funky for one chorus of raw-edged open trombone jazz backed by riffing saxophones.
The next chorus is more intense dynamically, with the open brass, led I think by George “Jumbo” Wendt, being particularly tart.
Shaw returns to scale the heights on his clarinet. Then Butterfield returns with his trumpet now open, and then into a reprise of the quiet ending.
This recording presents music crafted by a superlatively talented composer and arranger brought vividly to life by a virtuoso swing orchestra. It is a perfectly blended combination of the musical sensibilities of William Grant Still and Artie Shaw. Bravo!
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) Context and Creativity: William Grant Still in Los Angeles: Author Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje Source: Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Spring 2011), pp. 1-27
(2) In One Lifetime, (1986) by Verna Arvey, hereafter Arvey; and William Grant Still …A Study in Contradictions, (2000) by Catherine Parsons Smith, hereafter Parsons Smith..
(3) Arvey, 117.
(4) There is confusion about whether Grace Bundy was with Still in California in 1929-1930 when he was employed by Paul Whiteman. I have asserted that she was with him at least for a part of the time he was there with Whiteman because the photograph included in this post of Grace Bundy carries in its lower right corner this legend: Cloud’s Studio L.A. (See note 6 below.)
(4A) Still also worked for Harry Pace in his new venture after he left Handy’s music publishing business. This was the pioneering all-black Black Swan Records enterprise. In 1921 and into 1922, Still worked at Black Swan as an arranger. Fletcher Henderson also worked there, as music director. For those who want a deep dive into the world of Harry Pace, follow this link: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/vanishing-harry-pace-episode-1
(5) Parsons Smith, 72.
(6) The Whiteman orchestra went to California twice in 1929. They arrived the first time on June 15, 1929, to work on the Universal film The King of Jazz. Soon after their arrival, they were informed that the script for the film had not yet been written. They nevertheless remained in Los Angeles doing whatever work they could until August 27, 1929, when they returned to New York. They did broadcast weekly for Old Gold Cigarettes while they were in California. They returned to Hollywood on October 25, 1929 and began work on The King of Jazz on November 8. They continued work on the film until March 20, 1930. They continued their weekly Old Gold radio show through this time. William Grant Still left Whiteman’s employ on February 25, 1930.
(6A) Shaw noted in 1981 in the liner notes to Bluebird’s Complete Artie Shaw Volume III, that when he and Still were discussing how to approach MacDowell’s “A Deserted Farm,” he told Still “not to change a note.” Still followed that direction, and the result is a lovely expansion of the music for piano to fit the orchestra Shaw used on the March 3, 1940 recording date. Gunther Schuller, in his book The Swing Era (1989) at page 703, made this comment about that recording: “…Still’s turgid transcription (sounds like it was performed) by a fourth-rate out-of-tune symphony orchestra…” Schuller’s comment, which enraged Shaw, has been uncritically repeated by others. In listening many times to both the MacDowell piano music and to Shaw’s recording of “A Deserted Farm,” I must come down firmly on the side of William Grant Still and Artie Shaw. Still expanded it literally and skillfully, and Shaw and the orchestra performed it beautifully.
(7) Down Beat, April 1, 1940, 19.
(8) The Mystery of Artie Shaw, episode 7, (1998), a radio series produced by Ted Hallock.
(8a) Shaw also spent some time at M-G-M in early 1940. On one of his visits, he encountered Lana Turner, with whom he had worked the previous summer on the M-G-M film Dancing Co-ed. He may have also seen Lennie Hayton there.
(A) Here is a link to a historical recording from 1937 of William Grant Still’s Lenox Avenue in its entirety, performed by the Los Angeles WPA Orchestra, conducted by the composer. “The Blues” section of this performance can be accessed directly by scrolling to 15:10:
(B) And here is a link to a marvelous performance of “The Blues” section of Lenox Avenue, brilliantly performed by Rachel Barton Pine on violin, and Matthew Hagle on piano: