Bob Dorough: Spreading Joy
On the long march to artistic freedom and cultural respectability, jazz has lost much of its sense of jubilation. Rarely in contemporary improvised music does one experience the spine thrill afforded by Louis Armstrong’s bracing trumpet tone, Fats Waller’s gleeful deconstructions of ephemeral pop tunes, the euphoric affirmation of the Basie band’s brass section, or the roller coaster effervescence of an Ella Fitzgerald scat flight. The very idea of jazz as entertainment is anathema to many young musicians who devote their energies to hermetic self-expression.
“My job is to cheer people up, baby” asserts singer-pianist-composer-lyricist-arranger Bob Dorough, whose new Blue Note CD, Right On My Way Home, his first recording for a major jazz label in over four decades, is blissfully festive. Anyone who can listen to this rollicking collection of tunes without cracking a smile should immediately book an appointment to be tested for Bell’s palsy.
Now 73, Dorough has been spreading joy since his 1956 Bethlehem debut LP Devil May Care, which introduced his classic vocalese adaptation of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite.” That album caught the ear of Miles Davis who, in 1962, recorded three Dorough tunes, including the anti-Yuletide plaint “Blue Xmas,” featuring the composer-lyricist’s impishly mordant vocal. At that point, it seemed that Dorough had finally arrived at the artistic terminus of his nomadic journey from his remote birthplace, Cherry Hill, Arkansas. As things turned out, he was just beginning another passage.
Dorough’s peripatetic childhood, spent in several Texas towns, was filled with music, notably big band radio broadcasts and movie musicals. He was not aware of small group jazz until his freshman year at Texas Tech in Lubbock, after which he was drafted into the Army and assigned to band duty. Discharged in 1945, he was exposed to bebop at an Air Force base in Amarillo, Texas, and enrolled at North Texas State Teachers College where he majored in composition and minored in piano.
Moving to New York, he studied at Columbia University from 1950 until his G.I. Bill benefits expired in 1952. By that time, he had become part of the Manhattan jazz scene, holding jam sessions at his East 75th Street cold water flat that attracted Bill Evans, Tommy Flanagan, Pepper Adams, Kenny Burrell and Thad and Elvin Jones. While supporting himself by playing piano at a Times Square tap dance school, he met Sugar Ray Robinson who brought him to France as musical director of a touring revue, “The Champ.” He remained in Paris for a five-month engagement at the Mars Club. There he met Blossom Dearie who invited him to join the Blue Seas, a vocal ensemble that produced the hit single, “Lullaby of Birdland.”
Returning to Manhattan and obtaining a record contract in 1955, he faced a promising future. But Bethlehem folded shortly after the release of Devil May Care and Dorough drifted to L.A. where he worked as a solo singer-pianist and as a part of a jazz quintet. After 1962, the year he co-wrote (with bassist Ben Tucker) the Mel Torme pop single “Comin’ Home Baby” and recorded with Miles, gigs were hard to come by. With guitarist Stuart Scharf, he served as musical co-director for folk singer Chad Mitchell and the pop group Spanky & Our Gang. Apart from Just About Everything, a recently-reissued 1966 Focus album produced by disc jockey Mort Fega, Dorough’s recorded work was sporadic and wildly varied—a classical composition for recorder performed by the Kranis Consort and Ensemble, a jazz quintet version of the Broadway score Oliver!, and a limited-edition collection of songs by lyricist Fran Landesman.
A breakthrough occurred when Dorough became involved in the Schoolhouse Rock animation series which debuted on ABC-TV in 1973. As musical director, composer and performer, he devised innovative and entertaining methods of teaching math, grammar, history and science to several generations of American kids. (Last year, Rhino released a four-CD anthology of this material, accompanied by a book and videocassette collections of the cartoons. Renewed interest in these songs has led to “Schoolhouse Rock and All That Jazz” concerts in L.A., Boston, New York, San Francisco and other cities.) He resumed performing, usually in a duo with bassist Bill Takas, in American and European clubs, and recorded more frequently, though on obscure, hard-to-find independent labels: 52 Rue Est, Bloomdido, Pinnacle, Orange Blue and the Dorough/Sharf-run Laissez-Faire.
It seemed that Dorough was fated to remain a cult artist until Blue Note’s Bruce Lundvall phoned him last October. “It was a bolt from the blue,” says Dorough. “Lundvall, who shares my love of Mose Allison, heard my tracks on the Sony Miles Davis-Gil Evans reissues. We met twice, and decided to make a record. I already had some repertoire in mind. I had taped a duo CD with Bill Takas at the Jazz Bakery in L.A. but couldn’t release it because the digital tape turned out to be defective. I sent a copy of it to Lundvall, who loved the material and said ‘Let’s go.’ I wanted to use a larger group, so we decided to do two sessions. We recorded five tunes in New York with Joe Lovano, Christian McBride and Billy Hart, and five at an excellent studio near my home in the Poconos featuring Takas, who played bass on my first album, and Grady Tate.”
Right On My Way Home is Dorough’s masterpiece, a showcase for his irresistibly eccentric voice (a disarming blend of rustic charm and urban savvy) and buoyant piano playing, a hard-swinging, high-spirited conflation of bebop, swing and stride traditions.) The program opens and closes with standards: “Moon River,” which he once performed for composer Henry Mancini, and the definitive ’50’s jazz ballad “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” by his friends Fran Landesman and the late Tommy Wolf. (Miles once rasped to him, “You’re the only cat who can sing that damn song.”)
The rest of the CD contributes eight offbeat compositions to the jazz vocal repertoire, all of which have interesting histories. “Whatever Happened To Love Songs?,” a Dorough-Bill Loughborough jazz waltz introduced on the singer-pianist’s 1983 French recording Devil May Care 2 has been outfitted with some updated lyrics. “Right On My Way Home,” a jaunty Dorough melody with lyrics by Lynn Gibson (“a wild dame who writes funny greeting card verses”) was composed for Dennis Hopper’s 1994 movie Chasers. Hopper used to haunt the L.A. clubs where Dorough worked in the late ’50s, and asked him to perform this “traveling song” in the film and on the soundtrack CD.
“Walk On,” music by bassist Leroy Vinnegar, features lyrics by Don Nelson, a soprano saxophonist, vocalist and, incidentally, Ozzie’s brother. “He’s the first person I met when I moved to L.A.,” Dorough recalls, “and one of my oldest and dearest friends.” Nelson also wrote music and lyrics for “Something for Sidney,” a two-beat tribute to soprano sax legend Sidney Bechet. The breezy “I Get the Neck of the Chicken,” a Jimmy McHugh-Frank Loesser tune that Dorough claims, “I’ve known all my life,” appeared in the 1942 Lucille Ball screen musical Seven Days’ Leave.
“Zacherly,” music and lyrics by Takas, was inspired by the coda Dorough devised for their duo performances of “Exactly Like You” (the repetition of the word “zactly”) and, in the bebop tradition, adapts that standard’s harmonic structure. “Hodges,” which celebrates Ellington’s incomparable alto saxophonist and interpolates Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing,” was written by Dorough’s Delaware Water Gap neighbor Phil Woods, who introduced it on a recording with another saxophone giant, Benny Carter. Dorough’s “Up Jumped A Bird,” though not specifically about Charlie Parker, was written for a 1985 Rome concert commemorating the 30th anniversary of Bird’s death.
Poised, at last, for the exposure that has eluded him for so long, Dorough expresses no bitterness. “I have to admit that I felt somebody had missed the boat as far as I was concerned, but I’ve always been able to find work, except for some lean years in the ’60s. I used to hang out at Riverside and Atlantic Records but promises of albums never seemed to materialize. Maybe part of the fault was mine. You had to come up with an idea, a concept, and I never got around to doing that. My new association with Blue Note is very gratifying. They’ve encouraged me to record material I wanted to do with cats I wanted to blow with. If the CD catches on, it might give me a chance to work some nice clubs with larger bands than I have been able to afford in the past. And it might prod me to finish a project I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I want to do a show based on my life: my childhood, the joints I’ve worked in, the hassles I’ve had, some of the woman I’ve known. I’d play myself opposite an actress who would appear in a variety of roles—mother, lover, judge, psychiatrist. A couple of small theatres in California have expressed interest, so I’d better get down to work on it while I’m still around.”
Quest featuring David Liebman, Of One Mind
Nancy Marano and Eddie Monteiro; That Thing You Do
Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Sketches of Spain (Columbia)
Originally published in December 1997