Who was âMoose the Moocheâ? Why is a tune on Miles Davisâ most famous album called âFreddie Freeloaderâ? What could we learn from Professor Bop? Who put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphyâs Ovaltine? On this edition of Night Lights weâll check out the stories behind some jazz characters both imaginary and real-hangers-on, groupies, friends of all manner, and sometimes the performers themselves in the guise of an on-stage persona-in the music of Charlie Parker, Slim Gaillard, Horace Silver, Babs Gonzales, and other artists.
Of Minnies And McVoutys
We'll start with singer and bandleader Cab Calloway, whose outsized showman personality sustained him as a performer for five decades, but who initially rose to fame on the portrayal of the doomed heroine we know as âMinnie the Moocher," written by Calloway with his manager Irving Mills in an effort to create a song for the public to identify with the singer and his band. They succeeded, to put it mildly; the songâs hi-de-hi-de-ho call-and-response refrain, supposedly a spontaneous invention when Calloway forgot the lyrics one night during a broadcast, would become a lifelong signature for the bandleader. Many listeners, however, did not realize that âMinnie the Moocherâ and its numerous sequels were studded with allusions to the drug culture of 1930s Harlem. âWe created her as a rough, tough character,â Calloway wrote in his autobiography, âbut with a heart as big as a whale":
Callowayâs popularity would prove to be quite durable, but in the late 1930s and early 1940s another hepcat star emerged on the scene-guitarist and singer Slim Gaillard, who teamed up with bassist Slam Stewart to form the Slim and Slam Duo, scoring hits such as âFlat Foot Floogie With a Floy Floy,â so popular in 1939 that a copy of it was included in a time capsule buried at the New York City Worldâs Fair. Gaillardâs origins have several different accounts, though it seems fairly certain that he spent some of his youth in Detroit and in Crete. He invented a jivey hipster language he called âVout,â and dubbed himself âMcVouty,â singing in a cool, lighthearted, nonsensical lingo often spiced with culinary references and tags invoking the Gaillard word âoroonieâ that went over humorously with 1940s audiences:
Another performer with a colorful 1940s stage persona simply referred to himself in one song as âHarry The Handsome Hipster.â Born Harry Raab in 1915, Harry Gibson started out as a stride and boogie-woogie pianist and became well-known on New York Cityâs 52nd Street scene in the early 1940s, revving up his style with a musical approach that some have suggested anticipated the rise of rock ân roll; at the same time, he was involved with the esteemed Julliard School. In his autobiography he claimed to have coined the term âhipster.â Gibsonâs popularity took a nosedive with the music industry after his 1947 recording âWho Put The Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphyâs Ovaltine,â with its overt allusion to the stimulant that was used by some in the 1940s hipster subculture. Gibson would stick around for another few decades, though, reinvigorated by the emergence of rock ân roll, and the song itself would show up again on a 1975 Dr. Demento compilation.
Professor Bop, I Presume
Babs Gonzales was another real-life character who popped up in the colorful world of 1940s hip and bebop. A sometime road manager, promoter, and singer, he was born Lee Brown in Newark in 1919, but he and his brothers all went by the nickname âBabs,â and he later adopted Gonzales as his last name in an attempt to avoid anti-black racism by passing as Mexican. Gonzales worked as Errol Flynnâs chauffeur for awhile in 1940s Hollywood, and broke into the band business with Charlie Barnet and Lionel Hampton before putting together his own small group, âThree Bips and a Bop.â In the late 1940s the group made numerous recordings for Blue Note Records, working with some of the top young jazz musicians of the day, and Gonzalesâ song âOop-Pop-a-daâ would become famous through Dizzy Gillespieâs version of it. His 1967 autobiography I Paid My Dues: Good Times, No Bread-A Story of Jazz, is a classic underground memoir of the mid-20th century jazz scene. Here we hear Gonzales putting on a hip teaching cap with âProfessor Bop,â featuring the debut of tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins (still a teenager in 1949!) on record:
Speaking of bop, the artist who did so much to spark the movement once named a composition after a man we might call a business acquaintance. When saxophonist Charlie Parker landed on the West Coast at the end of 1945, he was already a heroin addict, and the heroin he was able to find in Los Angeles proved to be weak and unsatisfactory, until he connected with Emry Byrd, aka âMoose the Mooche.â Byrd, wheelchair-bound as a result of polio, ran a newsstand on Central Avenue, the main stem of Los Angelesâ black entertainment and commercial district, but he sold more than newspapers there. Parker was so grateful for Byrdâs superior product that he titled one of the very first recordings that he made for the small California record label Dial in Byrdâs honor. Not only that, but he eventually signed over half of his Dial royalties to Byrd, who later informed the label owners of the agreement via a letter sent from his new residence, San Quentin Prison. Parker biographer Carl Woideck calls the tune âMoose the Moocheâ âone of Parkerâs high points of melodic composition,â citing the saxophonistâs use of âa single rhythmic motive to unifyâ the piece and the variety of shapes employed to present its melodic contours. âMoose the Moocheâ went on to become a bebop standard and has been performed in recent years by artists such as Joshua Redman and the jam band Phish; hereâs the Charlie Parker original:
Ladies' Men And Lady MacGowan
In this next set we hear two compositions written by the great hardbop pianist and bandleader Horace Silver, with lyrics added by Silver himself in the first instance, and jazz critic Ira Gitler in the second. âSenor Blues,â recorded in several different versions for Blue Note Records, helped establish the Horace Silver Quintet in the late 1950s just as âMinnie the Moocherâ sealed the deal for Cab Calloway as a rising-star bandleader in the 1930s. A minor-key composition full of sly and snaky rhythm twists and turns, âSenor Blues,â like the other song weâll hear, âFilthy McNasty,â depicts a Don Juan figure, though Senor Blues is a more subtle character, while McNasty, supposedly inspired by the villain in the W.C. Fields movie The Bank Dick, is a little louder and more down-and-out in his charms. âSenor Bluesâ was also recorded by Ray Charles, Anita OâDay, and blues singer Taj Mahal; hereâs a Horace Silver take with Bill Henderson providing the vocals:
A musical portrait now of a sort of female counterpart to these Don Juan characters, a real-life person who was known by many members of Woody Hermanâs 1940s big band. Herman band arranger Ralph Burns, who wrote the piece weâre about to hear, said it was inspired by a woman with a British accent who showed up at a Chicago concert, âout of her skull, dancing away, just having fun.â Afterwards she introduced herself as âLady MacGowanâ and invited the band up to her hotel room for a partyâthe first of several evenings of what Burns said were like âorgy parties!â Lady McGowan may or may not have been an English aristocrat who spent some time in mental institutions, but her frolics with the Herman band were vividly recalled by the musicians decades later. Ralph Burnsâ composition is a masterpiece, occupying what jazz writer Loren Schoenberg calls
the realm of instrumental fantasyâ¦the unusual tonality Burns achieves throughout never sounds like cheap makeup or false exoticismâ¦ he conjoins structural joints with unusual sounds and figures the same way that a magician uses misdirection to help create an illusion.
Freeloading His Way Into A Jazz Masterpiece
Weâll explore more characters and scenesters in a future edition of Night Lights, including a whole set of tributes to the so-called âjazz baroness,â Pannonica de Koenigswarter, aka âNica.â This program closes with something from Miles Davisâ 1959 masterpiece Kind Of Blue, the only track on the album to feature Wynton Kelly on piano instead of Bill Evans. âFreddie Freeloader,â according to Kind Of Blue chronicler Ashley Kahn, was âFred Tolbert, a colorful street character who worked as a bartender at a Philadelphia bar called the Nightlife and survived on handoutsâ¦ his business card simply read, âFreddie the Freeloader.ââ Tolbert befriended Davis in the late 1950s and was later described by Davisâ ex-wife Frances as âkookyâ¦harmless kooky,â while Herbie Hancock thought Davis liked Tolbert for his street smarts; perhaps thatâs why the trumpeter named a piece with a funky, bluesy glide to it in Tolbertâs honor, and why he preferred to have Wynton Kelly in the piano chair. In his liner notes for the album, Bill Evans offers a gracious nod to the sole track on which he didnât appear, describing it as âa 12-measure blues form given new personality by effective melodic and rhythmic simplicity.â Ashley Kahn notes that âFreddie Freeloaderâ is the âleast melancholyâ track on an album marked by a late-night modal moodiness:
- When Charlie Parker Came To L.A. (Los Angeles Magazine article)
- Ashley Kahn's book Kind Of Blue: The Making Of Miles Davis' Masterpiece has the full rundown on "Freddie the Freeloader."
- Jazz And Jack Kerouac (previous Night Lights program)
- To Dig Or Not To Dig: Jazz And Hip With Phil Ford (previous Night Lights program)
- The New Year's Eve Jam (previous Night Lights program)