Monday, May 22, 2006

Williams’ Me and My Father’s Shadow

Me and My Father’s Shadow
By Dawn Williams
Sunrise House

A career in music can take a toll. Sometimes it is family members who pay it. Recent biographies about Oscar Brown, Jr. and Jackie Paris include notable revelations about love children, the result of life on the road. Dawn Williams’ book Me and My Father’s Shadow: A Daughter’s Quest and Biography of Ted Lewis “the Jazz King” tells a similar story.

Williams has two narratives to tell. One is her personal story culminating with her response to the revelation that her father was actually the early jazz band leader Ted Lewis, best known for his “Me and My Shadow” number. The other is the story of her father, the popular bandleader, who worked steadily from the 1920’s through the early 1960’s, but is largely forgotten today.

Many jazz fans might bridle at the description of Lewis as “the Jazz King,” but Lewis was a much more worthy monarch than the man he dethroned, Original Dixieland Jazz Band leader Nick LaRocca. LaRocca held the distinction as the leader of the first recorded jazz band. Although his music was appropriated from the African-American bands of New Orleans, LaRocca was a virulent racist, who dismissed non-white contributions to music in the crudest of terms. LaRocca’s ODJB had made Reisenweber’s restaurant the top nightspot in Manhattan. Rectors, a competitor, was looking for a jazz band to cut into their action. When Lewis was hired:

“Ted and his new band not only gave Rectors audience the jazz George Rector sought, but also sights and sounds it never heard before. The trombones laughed, clarinets sobbed, and hat-muted instruments, with their ‘wah-wah-wah’s,’ talked to an audience that seemed to understand every word.” (p. 157)

Many swing purists might dismiss Lewis for his comedic effects. Lewis was a dedicated showman more than a musician, famous for his catch-phrase: “is everybody happy?” He did however, have quite an ear when hiring sidemen. Important figures like the Dorseys, Mugsy Spanier, and his apostolic successors to the Jazz King title, Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman, served early apprenticeships in Lewis’ band. In 1931 Lewis even recorded “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby” with Fats Waller, in act of musical integration that would prefigure Goodman’s racially integrated quartet with Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson.

In Williams’ book, Williams comes off sympathetically. From what she has been able to piece together, it seems Williams tried to do right for the daughter he never met on several occasions. Williams was popular enough to be the subject of two films in the 1920’s and 1930’s, but his music would eventually fall out of popular favor. More than anything, he was an entertainer. Lewis said:

“My shows are always clean and entertaining. What most people want are lyrics that come straight from the heart. People want to see the same show and hear me play the way I’ve always played.” (p. 199)

Shadow performs a valuable service by preserving an important chapter in big band history.