Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Jazz Train

The Jazz Train—Original London Cast
Original cast and selections from Bertice Reading, Marie Bryant, Elisabeth Welch and the Peters Sisters
Sepia 1062

Jazz has a historic association with musical theater, beginning with the reviews of James Reese Europe, prior to the advent of the book musical. The Jazz Train of 1955 follows in the tradition of those musical reviews, and prefigures the modern jukebox musical created with Ain’t Misbehavin,’ based on the music of Fats Waller. Although titled The Jazz Train, it was really a musical cavalcade with each car of the train identified with a style of African American popular music. It is however, a very entertaining show that will still have plenty of appeal for jazz listeners.

While the happy music coming out of the plantation and minstrel cars will strike contemporary listeners as somewhat questionable, the performances themselves are energetic. However, the real standout numbers come from Bertice Reading, as she gives a swinging up-tempo rendition of “Frankie and Johnny” and does right by the inspiration for “Bessie Smith Blues.” Having sung and swung with the bands of Count Basie and Lionel Hampton, Reading serves as the shows apostolic link to the legendary American big bands.

Jazz Train is supplemented with some rare 78 sessions recorded by African American jazz and cabaret vocalists who found a more welcoming artistic environment in London, including cast-member Reading. Perhaps as valuable as Jazz Train itself, are tracks from the sadly under-recorded Marie Bryant. While Bryant is known for her association with Duke Ellington, she is probably best remembered for her appearance in Gjon Mili’s short film Jammin’ the Blues, considered by many to be the greatest jazz film of any length ever produced, currently available on youtube here (copyright issues?).

According to the liner notes, Bryant actually caused an international incident: “Daniel Malan, the Prime Minister of South Africa, was in London for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, when Bryant performed in the show an anti-apartheid calypso, Don’t Malign Malan.” (p. 6) Bryant’s swinging versions of standards like “Beale Street Blues” and “Georgia on My Mind” alone would be worth the price of admission.

Jazz Train collects some important cultural history and many excellent vocal performances. It is an important reissue that seems to have been unjustly ignored by the American jazz press, but would be a rewarding addition to any CD collection.