Song of the Week – Nice Nice Very Nice, Ambrosia; Nice Very Nice, Dave Soldier & Kurt Vonnegut; High Society, Louis Armstrong

Ignored           Obscured            Restored

Today’s SotW was written by guest contributor, Matthew Wells.  Matthew and I have been friends for over 40 years.  He was among the first guest contributors to the SotW, way back in 2009.

I came up with the idea of posting about a song inspired by a science fiction novel several years ago but didn’t feel qualified to write it.  I knew Matthew was my man!  In addition to being a successful playwright, he has a scifi novel in his top drawer that should be published.  Read on!

When you think about songs based on works of science-fiction books, there are obvious ones that come to mind, like “Rocket Man” by Pearls Before Swine, which is based on the Ray Bradbury story of the same name, and “1984” by David Bowie (he wanted to do a stage musical based on the book, but couldn’t get the rights from the Orwell estate).

And then there’s “Fifty-Third Calypso,” from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, otherwise known as “Nice, Nice, Very Nice:”

Oh, a sleeping drunkard

Up in Central Park,

And a lion-hunter

In the jungle dark,

And a Chinese dentist,

And a British queen—

All fit together

In the same machine.

Nice, nice, very nice;

Nice, nice, very nice;

Nice, nice, very nice—

So many different people

In the same device.

The Calypso is part of a religion, invented by a man called Bokonon and named after himself, whose believers accept that life is meaningless but still want some kind of hope to cling to, even if it’s a lie.

There are three musical versions of it that I could find.  The earliest is from the self-titled first album of the prog-rock group Ambrosia, in 1975.

In their version, the group added an additional stanza and a bridge:

Oh a whirling dervish
And a dancing bear
Or a Ginger Rogers and a Fred Astaire
Or a teenage rocker
Or the girls in France
Yes, we all are partners in this cosmic dance

Nice, nice, very nice
Nice, nice, very nice
So many people in the same device

I wanted all things to make sense
So we’d be happy instead of tense

The mix of organ, horns, and drums give this version a spacy, psychedelic feel, like the musical version of a trippy religious experience.  Kurt Vonnegut is credited as co-writer on the song, and from all accounts, he liked this version.  In a letter he wrote to the band in 1976, he says:

“I was at my daughter’s house last night, and the radio was on.  By God if the DJ didn’t play our song, and say it was number ten in New York, and say how good you guys are in general. You can imagine the pleasure that gave me.  Luck has played an enormous part in my life.  Those who know pop music keep telling me how lucky I am to be tied in with you.  And I myself am crazy about our song, of course, but what do I know and why wouldn’t I be?  This much I have always known, anyway: Music is the only art that’s really worth a damn.  I envy you guys.”

The song also shows up in “Ice-Nine Ballads,” a 1997 collaboration between Vonnegut and Dave Soldier in which Soldier’s arrangements for songs based on Cat’s Cradle are accompanied by Vonnegut’s voiceovers.

In this version, Vonnegut’s voiceover has the offhand cool of William S. Burroughs, and Soldier’s arrangement sounds like a Frank Zappa B-side. (Odd fact: Soldier is the musical persona of Columbia University neuroscientist David Sulzer.)

To me, these two versions of Vonnegut’s lyric are nice, nice, very nice enough, but neither of them meet the challenge of turning the song into an actual calypso, like something that could have been sung by Harry Belafonte.  Or Louis Armstrong.  Why Armstrong?  Because the tune in my head is pretty much the same as Cole Porter’s “High Society,” which Armstrong sings at the beginning of the 1956 movie.  To me, it has the right tempo, and the right tune:

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Ditty Wah Ditty, Ry Cooder (w/ Earl “Fatha” Hines) & Weather Bird, Louis Armstrong w/ Earl “Fatha” Hines

IGNORED OBSCURED RESTORED

The first time I was introduced to jazz great Earl “Fatha” Hines was when my cousin Tom V. (an excellent guitarist and contribution to SotW) played Ry Cooder’s recording of “Ditty Wah Ditty” from the album Paradise and Lunch (1974) for me. This is a version of the Blind Blake composition, not the song by Willie Dixon and Bo Diddley that shares the same title (although many spelling variations exist). Hines duets with Cooder on this track.

Hines was over 70 years old when “Ditty Wah Ditty” was released. Still, his playing was impeccable. His improvisational runs and glissandos are a thing of beauty.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also give you something to listen to from Hines’ early, influential recordings with Louis Armstrong from the late 1920s. My selection is “Weather Bird.”

The liner notes to The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz call “Weather Bird” a “mounting, unencumbered duet… the fullest statement on record of the encounter of the trumpeter (Armstrong) and pianist Earl Hines.”

Hines’ duets with Armstrong are cited as some of the most important jazz recordings ever pressed. Hines is credited with inventing the piano style known as the trumpet-style. Its main characteristic is a right hand that plays chords that were typical of horn sections of the day. Hines was a major influence on Art Tatum, another pianist that many jazz aficionados consider one of the greatest ever.

Enjoy… until next week.