“The Maid With the Flaccid Air” (1945) Artie Shaw/Eddie Sauter

“The Maid With the Flaccid Air”

Composed and arranged by Eddie Sauter.

Recorded by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra for Victor on July 19, 1945 in Hollywood.

Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: Stan “Fish” Fishelson, first trumpet; Bernie Glow (Glotzer), George Schwartz, Roy Eldridge, trumpets; Ollie Wilson, first trombone; Agostino Ischia (Gus Dixon), Bob Swift, Harry Rodgers, trombones; Lou Prisby, first alto saxophone; Rudy Tanza, alto saxophone; Jon Walton, Ralph Rosenlund, tenor saxophones; Chuck Gentry, baritone saxophone; Michael “Dodo”  Marmarosa, piano, Barney Kessel, electric guitar; Morris Rayman, bass: Lou Fromm, drums.

The story – part one Debussy and …

Claude Debussy composed a lot of delightful music, none more delightful than the piano piece The Girl With the Flaxen Hair (La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin). It is the eighth piece in the composer’s first book of Preludes, written between late 1909 and early 1910. The piece is 39 measures long and takes approximately two and a half minutes to play. It is in the key of G-flat major.

Eddie Sauter’s “The Maid with the Flaccid Air” was composed in early 1945, and as far as I can tell has nothing to do musically with the Debussy piece. But it has a lot to do with it in terms of mood. (1)

I can never listen to this performance without recalling an experience I had in Manhattan many years ago on a warm, sunny spring Sunday morning. I had decided to go to one of my favorite parts of Central Park, the Ramble, and enjoy a quiet walk there under the cloudless, azure sky before the Park became overrun by tourists. I pretty much had the Ramble to myself from about 9:30 to 11:00, when I decided to get back to whatever activities I had planned for the rest of the day. I exited the Park on Central Park West, and then walked west on one of the quiet streets in the upper West Sixties.

Before long, I became aware of the most lovely guitar music coming from what appeared to be a canopied area in front of one of the buildings on the north side of the street. As I drew near, I could see that it was an intimate sidewalk cafe’ having about ten tables, where Sunday brunch was being served. I stopped on the sidewalk, peered over the hedge separating the cafe’ from the outer sidewalk, and listened to the guitarist play Debussy’s The Girl With the Flaxen Hair. As I listened and watched the music being made, I noticed a young woman who was sitting alone gesturing. I thought nothing of it, but saw that she was was continuing to gesture, and point at me. Embarrassed, I looked at her and pointed at myself, questioningly. She then began nodding “yes,” and waved at me to come to her table, which I did, most carefully. I was hoping I hadn’t been rude by my behavior.

As I arrived, the young woman said “I think you can hear the music better sitting here.” I was relieved and delighted.  I then looked more carefully at her. She was extremely beautiful, bearing a strong resemblance to a young Ava Gardner, but with very short, curly dark brown hair. As I sat down, she said casually, “Hi, I’m Belinda.” I replied that my name was Mike. The guitarist then continued playing what amounted to a small recital of Debussy’s music for the next half hour. No words were exchanged between Belinda and me during this time.

When the guitarist stopped playing, Belinda said to me, “I can see that you really appreciate music. My elderly uncle and aunt live in this building. They really like music and might enjoy speaking with you. Will you come up to their apartment with me and meet them? It will take only a few minutes.” I made some feeble excuse that I didn’t want to intrude, but Belinda interrupted me by saying, “It will not be an intrusion. It will be something that I think they will enjoy. Are you up for it”? I continued to balk, but Belinda got up from her seat, gently took my right hand, and led me away from the cafe’.

We walked only a few steps to the entrance to a lovely older apartment building, and entered together. I was watching Belinda intently, but furtively. She was quite tall, probably about 5’10”, and had a superb figure. She moved with the grace of a ballet dancer. She was wearing a fitted pastel green top with beige jeans. I was enchanted. When we entered the small elevator, she caught me looking at her, and a Mona Lisa smile flickered across her face for a moment. She pushed the button for the top floor of the building.

When we arrived, the elevator doors opened into a large, beautifully appointed foyer with perhaps a half-dozen doors for apartments on its walls. Belinda entered one of them in front of me and announced herself by saying: “Hello lovely people! I’ve brought a guest! I encountered him downstairs listening to the music.” We passed through a wide, tastefully decorated hallway into a spacious living room that faced east, overlooking Central Park, that was receiving the remnants of the morning sunshine. In the room were the usual collection of furniture, a grand piano, and a full set of drums and cymbals.

Almost immediately, Belinda’s uncle and aunt, both in wheel chairs, came rolling into the living room. They were indeed elderly, probably in their nineties, but were quite effervescent and mentally acute. Belinda introduced me to her uncle, whom I shall call Dr. S. He was a retired professor of American history at Columbia University. Dr. S. then introduced me to Mrs. S., and asked me to sit down on a chair that was near them. Belinda pulled a chair next to mine and sat down.

“Tell me Mike, do you like music”? Dr. S asked. “Yes,” I replied. We then began a discussion of various “classical” music composers, with Dr. S. wanting to know which ones I liked. Mrs. S. also participated in this conversation, interjecting knowing comments.  After a few minutes, Dr. S. said: “It is apparent to me, based on the composers whose music you like, that you also like jazz. Am I correct”? I told Dr. S. that I did indeed like jazz. We then began to discuss jazz.

Dr. and Mrs. S. loved jazz, and had spent a good amount of time in the period from the 1930s through the 1960s listening to it in live performances of it around Manhattan. They had often gone to Hotel Pennsylvania in the mid and late 1930s to hear music, and dance. They recounted the excitement they felt listening to Benny Goodman and Bunny Berigan in the Madhattan Room. They danced to the music of Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller at the Pennsy’s Cafe’ Rouge. They also danced to many bands at the Pennsylvania Roof, and at Hotel Astor, where they heard Tommy Dorsey with Frank Sinatra and Jo Stafford. They often went to see and hear Duke Ellington at The Hurricane in the Brill Building during World War II. They danced to the music of Erskine Hawkins at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem on a number of occasions. They also visited the various clubs on 52nd Street, and to Cafe’ Society in the late 1930s and into the 1940s to hear high-octane jazz. They both loved Lester Young and Billie Holiday. Art Tatum was god to them.

In the 1950s, jazz was increasingly being presented in upscale rooms like The Embers, but Dr. and Mrs. S. were also regular visitors at Birdland through the 1950s to hear Count Basie and other jazz artists.

My enthusiastic conversation with Dr. and Mrs. S. apparently pleased Belinda, who said very little, but smiled from time to time, as her uncle and aunt became particularly animated talking about their long-past musical explorations.

After about 15 minutes of conversation, Dr. S. said to Belinda, “Darling, will you please get Momma and me a small Toddy”?  “…The usual, I presume,” Belinda said, her smile lighting up the room. “Yes, of course” said Dr. S. “Oh Mike, do you want anything to drink”? “Belinda, what are you having,”? I said. “Iced tea.” “Great, then I’ll have an iced tea. It’s a little early in the day…”

While we were waiting for the drinks to arrive, I looked more closely at Dr. S. He was dressed beautifully in a white silk shirt with charcoal grey slacks and black penny loafers. Mrs. S. was also well turned out, wearing a pale blue silk shirt and fawn brown tailored slacks. However she, like Belinda, was wearing sandals.

When Belinda returned, I asked Dr. S. about the drums. “Well, yes, they are quite a conversation piece. I got them in the early 1940s and sort of taught myself to play them. I did that while listening to records. It was great fun. It also taught me to appreciate the artistry of many great jazz drummers.”

After we finished our drinks, I said that I needed to get to an appointment with family and friends. Dr. and Mrs. S. were most solicitous. Farewells and thank yous were warmly exchanged.

As I got up to leave, Belinda said, “let me show you out.” She then led me to the door and out of the apartment to the elevator. I fully expected her to return to her uncle and aunt at that point, but instead, she got on the elevator with me. It was a small old-fashioned elevator with wood paneled walls. She reached across me to push the button for floor one, and pressed against me softly. When the elevator began its descent, she looked at me with her greenish eyes with gold flecks and said, “Thanks for letting me pimp you like that. You really brightened their day.” As the elevator doors opened, she leaned over and kissed me on the lips. My knees buckled. I stumbled out of the elevator. The doors closed.

The music:

The title Eddie Sauter facetiously bestowed upon this lovely composition and arrangement was his way of paying homage to a composer, Claude Debussy, whose music he loved and which inspired him. When Artie Shaw and his band played a lengthy engagement at the Strand Theater in Manhattan at the beginning of 1945, Sauter met with Shaw with the purpose of creating some arrangements for the Shaw band to play and record. They agreed that Sauter would arrange George Gershwin’s “Summertime” and one or two other melodies from the works of major American popular music composers. But in addition, they agreed that Sauter would compose new music himself that he thought would fit the character of the Shaw band, including of course Artie’s clarinet. “The Maid with the Flaccid Air” was one of the original compositions Sauter delivered to Shaw in the spring of 1945. (At left: Eddie Sauter.)

Ava Gardner was with Shaw while he was in New York in early 1945. It is not unreasonable to suppose that she was present at one or more of the meetings Shaw had with Eddie Sauter. If this happened, one can reasonably assume that Sauter was affected as most men were when they met Ava Gardner, meaning that he was awestruck by her beauty. Regrettably, we will never know what actually happened. But what we do know is that Ava Gardner was Artie Shaw’s muse from mid-1944 through 1945, the same period of time that he led the band that made this recording. (At right: Ava Gardner.)

The introduction to “The Maid With the Flaccid Air” sounds a bit ominous with the saxophone quintet playing somewhat dissonant harmonic pads behind the unison of piano played by Dodo Marmarosa, and electric guitar played by Barney Kessel, which add a contrasting layer of sound.

The mood becomes somewhat brighter as the first chorus begins. The saxophones now carry Sauter’s light-hearted melody, with trumpeter Roy Eldridge adding a Harmon-muted obbligato, while the open trombones play subtle syncopations. This pattern continues for sixteen bars. The secondary (bridge) melody is played by the trombone quartet, led by Ollie Wilson. At the midpoint of this sequence we hear Shaw’s clarinet, blending with the reeds at first, and then swathed in that warm, fluffy trombone section sound. The last eight bars of chorus one resemble the first sixteen, except that we now also hear Chuck Gentry’s baritone saxophone more prominently in the instrumental mix.

Artie Shaw in the recording studio in 1945 with L-R: Morrie Rayman, Ralph Rosenlund and Ollie Wilson.

The next chorus contains solos that are more accurately described as two or more interwoven instrumental colors, the first being pianist Dodo Marmarosa with tenor saxophonist Ralph Rosenlund, played against a scrim of Harmon-muted trumpets.  As the music glides into its next phase, notice how arranger Sauter merges the sounds of the electric guitar (Kessel), and the piano (Marmarosa). Trombonist Ollie Wilson then plays solo against a shifting background of muted trumpets, and piano.(2) Sauter’s use of the saxophone section in this passage is particularly felicitous. Shaw then plays a clarinet counterpoint to Wilson’s trombone for a few bars before he emerges as the top voice in a delightful duet with baritone saxophonist Gentry. (Below left: baritone saxophone master Chuck Gentry.)

Shaw then carries on playing against a backdrop of gently rhythmic saxophones. The next phase of the music has Shaw continuing to play solo, now over a more complex background of muted trumpets, cascading saxophones and warm open trombones. Out of this sonic mix, young Mr. Wilson reappears on his open trombone, with densely harmonized instruments behind him, including the piano and the guitar. (Pianist Dodo Marmarosa plays his ensemble parts throughout this performance brilliantly.) The main melody is then reprised with lead alto saxophonist Lou Prisby and Shaw tossing it back and forth, with Eldridge reappearing with his Harmon-muted trumpet. The final few bars contain yet more enticing sounds.

I will suggest that the solos in this piece were carefully composed and written out by Sauter to perfectly fit into his complex arrangement and complement the music. (At right: Eddie Sauter – mid 1940s.)

This is high-content music composed and arranged brilliantly by Eddie Sauter and performed beautifully by Artie Shaw and his band. Mr. Sauter had to be elated by how well Shaw and his virtuoso ensemble brought his music so vividly to life.

Not a note or inflection of this music has dated in the last eighty years. Great music will always inhabit its own present tense.

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Links:

(1) Here is a link to a solo piano performance of Debussy’s “The Girl With the Flaxen Hair.” I like this performance primarily because I think it is taken at the perfect tempo. Debussy’s melody and harmonies are sublime. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBjA_FM0X80

(2) The second solo trombone we hear momentarily in this sequence was played by Agostino Ischia (Gus Dixon).

Here are links to other posts here at swingandbeyond.com by Artie Shaw from 1944-1945:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/02/24/these-foolish-things-1945-artie-shaw/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/08/28/the-grabtown-grapple-1945-artie-shaw-and-his-gramercy-five/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2021/09/13/september-song-1945-artie-shaw-ray-conniff-and-1960-ella-fitzgerald/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/10/11/reads-and-re-reads-the-protean-mr-gershwin/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/01/10/lets-walk-1945-artie-shaw/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2023/01/20/lady-day-1945-artie-shaw-with-roy-eldridge-1987-loren-schoenberg-and-his-jazz-orchestra/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/01/06/little-jazz-trumpet-titan-roy-eldridge-rockin-chair-1941-with-gene-krupa-scuttlebutt-1945-with-artie-shaw/

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4 Comments

  1. I feel absolutely compelled to tell you that, while I went came for the backstory, I found myself riveted by your intro story preceding it. As captivatingly written a short story as any I’ve ever read.

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