Luck's In my Corner: The Life and Music of Hot Lips Page
By Todd Bryant Weeks
Includes dozens of unpublished photos, musical transcriptions and analysis, unpublished genealogical data, unpublished interviews, complete new discography
Luck's In My Corner: The Life and Music of Hot Lips Page is a comprehensive biography of one of the most compelling jazz musicians of the Swing Era. Oran Hot Lips" Page was the greatest of the Kansas City trumpeters, whose powerful, growling horn made him the go-to man on that instrument during Count Basie's earliest days as a leader. Page went on to be a featured soloist with Artie Shaw, a star of New York's 52nd Street, and a pioneer of the burgeoning R & B scene of the 1950s.
Despite his many successes, Page's personal life was fraught with troubles. His father died when his son was eight, and the boy was forced to leave school and go to work to help support his family. Page's second wife, Myrtle, who by all accounts was the love of his life, died suddenly in New York in 1946 at the age of twenty-eight, leaving Hot Lips as the sole parent of their young son, Oran Jr. Throughout the 1940s, he struggled to maintain his audience as the popular style of music changed from Swing to Bebop to Rhythm and Blues. He died suddenly after a mysterious incident in 1954, at age forty-six.
Through the use of interviews, anecdotes and oral histories, author Todd Bryant Weeks has pieced together Page's personal story. He has contacted dozens of people (many in their eighties and nineties), who knew Page personally, and has spent many hours interviewing several of Page's family members, including his son, Oran Page, Jr., who is now a Municipal Judge in Jackson, Mississippi. Weeks has also been granted access to files, photographs and personal scrapbooks belonging to Page at the Institute of Jazz Studies in Newark, New Jersey. The book includes dozens of unpublished photographs, musical transcriptions and analysis and a complete new Discography of Hot Lips Page.
A must have for any serious jazz fan, educator, or fan of African-American History.
Luck's In my Corner: The Life and Music of Hot Lips Page is the definitive work on this legendary jazz figure.
About the Author
Todd Bryant Weeks is a writer, educator and jazz historian. He has taught Jazz History and Introduction to Music at Rutgers University-Newark and with the acclaimed Bard Prison Initiative, and has lectured at the Institute of Jazz Studies in Newark, New Jersey and at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, New York. His writing has appeared in The Annual Review of Jazz Studies, Allegro, Uptown Magazine and in liner notes for Rhino/Warner Bros. He wrote the chapter on jazz in Harlem for the book Forever Harlem: Celebrating America's Most Diverse Community (2007). He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter. This is his first book.
Questions and Answers from Author Todd Bryant Weeks
Q: For our listeners who love jazz but aren't familiar with Hot Lips Page, who was he?
A: Hot Lips Page was a phenomenal musician who ranks alongside the great jazz legends of the 1930s, '40s and '50s. When you think of the master trumpet players of the first half of the 20th century--Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie--Hot Lips Page should be included in any short list. He was Count Basie's first pick as a soloist when Kansas City was at its absolute zenith as a jazz center in the 1930s. Before that he was the lead trumpeter in two legendary jazz bands--the Bennie Moten Orchestra and Walter Page's Blue Devils. In the 1940s he was an acknowledged star of 52nd Street and a featured soloist with Artie Shaw. A mainstay of some Harlem's most famous jam sessions, Lips was known as Mr. After Hours," for his ability to go head-to-head with any contender in any setting, and he was a respected leader who participated in some of the greatest big band and jump blues recording sessions of the era, including the Wynonie Harris date that yielded Good Rockin' Tonight." Today, he is, sadly, forgotten. That's why I wrote the book--to give credit where credit is due.
Q: What attracted you to Hot Lips Page?
A: The name. How could you know want to find out about a guy who called himself Hot Lips? Honestly, it was the writings of Dan Morgenstern--who was editor of Down Beat and is currently the Director of the Institute of Jazz Studies--that attracted me to Lips. Lips was recorded at a series of cutting contests--musical jousting sessions--in Harlem in 1940 and 1941, and the music was well, absolutely wild--very free from for its time, a kind of proto- bop. And without getting too technical, it was his lip slurs--the way he articulated a wide range of sounds on the instrument that was more purely vocal than musical--this really grabbed me. Dan Morgenstern wrote that on these recordings Lips was responsible for, and I quote some of the wildest, most spontaneous, hilarious, out of sight jamming ever captured on wax, tape, whatever, with Lips doing some insane things . . . you can hear him breathe." Dan was right. They are amazing recordings--and Lips is incredible.
Q: When you say vocal" what do you mean? Isn't all music vocal in its inception? Don't we hear a melody in our head and essentially vocalize it with an instrument?
A: Well, that's a big subject, because of course there's plenty of music today that could never be made with or even approached by a human voice. I'm thinking primarily of electronic music. But Lips was a great growl specialist," something that Ralph Ellison, who knew Lips and emulated him during his teenage years in Oklahoma City, wanted very much to learn how to do. The most famous of the growlers" were Bubber Miley and Cootie Williams with Duke Ellington, but Lips's growl was arguably much fiercer than either of theirs. This vocal aspect is in the African-American tradition--quite antithetical to western classical--that of sound production which approximates vocalizations of various kinds: crying, laughing, preaching. And even the more fundamental sounds of animals and machines. And this is not necessarily related to western scales or chords or even standard tonality. This sound was raw until the modernists--in the same sense that Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington were modernists--got a hold of it, and urbanized it. Lips was at the forefront of that back when the trumpet was the instrument in American Popular Music.
Q: How did you research the book?
A: I did extensive genealogical research, something I studied under Dr. Lewis Porter at Rutgers University-Newark. And I was able to trace Lips's family back to the 1850s in Texas. But the main work was conducted through extensive interviews of musicians who had played with Lips--and with surviving family members. And through the use of African-American newspapers. Lips died at the age of 46 in 1954. Many of the people who played with him are either dead or in their seventies, eighties and nineties. I interviewed Hank Jones, Artie Shaw, Clark Terry, Bob Wilbur, Marian McPartland, and many others. Lips was with Artie Shaw in late 1941, at a time when there were very few integrated bands--Shaw had hired Billie Holiday a few years before that. It was an extremely intrepid stance on Shaw's part--but even more so for any black performer who had the guts to sign on with a white band.
Q: It was a really dangerous thing to do at that time. I assume the band went south?
A: The band was scheduled to go into the Deep South, and at the last minute Shaw decided to cancel that leg of the tour. When I interviewed Mr. Shaw several months before his death, he explained how his management had wanted him to leave Hot Lips Page up North and to go on without him: They said to him, Lips can work the tour, but he can't sit nearer than fifteen feet from the nearest man in the band!" And Shaw asked them: Have you ever heard of something called a time lag?" Which was a real thing. There would be a delay in the sound--almost like a Doppler effect--if the musicians sat too far apart. But Shaw loved Lips, and called him a sparkplug"--because he inspired the other musicians so. Later Lips responded to the tour's cancellation in an interview that appeared in the black press, saying:
The public likes to hear us play all right, but it thinks of us principally as entertainers. It rarely gives any attention to the problems of how we live, how much money we make in comparison to whites in similar jobs. There are these and lots of other smaller things. It's Jim Crow all the way down the line. I say leave good music alone and it will be happy and good. I think people are the same way [all over] and would act differently if they were not hemmed in by a lot of taboos."
Years later, when commenting on his return to the United States from Europe, Lips referred to it as going back behind the Iron Curtain." Like many middle class African-Americans of his generation, Lips considered himself a race man," meaning, I don't hate you because you're not of my race, but I love myself and my race and will do what I can to uplift myself and my race." He was very progressive. Q: Who else did you talk to?
A: One very interesting interview I conducted was with Harold Stumpy" Cromer--of Stump and Stumpy" a song and dance team that worked at the Apollo Theater from the 1930s through the 1970s. Cromer worked very closely with Lips for a more than a decade, at the Apollo and other theaters.
Q: What did Cromer have to say about Lips?
A: Well, Cromer's take, which is something that was echoed in much of the literature, such as it is, is that Lips was actually frozen out" of the good bookings during the 1930s in New York and elsewhere, bookings that might have made him a big star, because of racism.
Q: What do you mean by frozen out?"
A: In the late 1930s, Lips had taken off on a particularly singular kind of ascent, having been a star with arguably the greatest swing band before Basie's--with apologies to Benny Goodman--the other Bennie, the Bennie Moten Orchestra of Kansas City. And this is at a time when Kansas City jazz--Kansas City rhythms--were becoming pervasive. And when Moten died suddenly in 1935 of a botched tonsillectomy, his band split up. Count Basie, who was the band's second pianist, absorbed most of Moten's key players into his own unit, and Lips was a featured trumpet soloist in that group. But when John Hammond, who had steered Goodman's career, and Joe Glaser, who was responsible for marketing Louis Armstrong, showed up simultaneously in Kansas City during the summer of 1936, Basie went with John Hammond. And Hot Lips Page went with Joe Glaser--as a single attraction--and a future big bandleader.
Glaser booked Hot Lips Page as Louis Armstrong's Greatest Rival" and yet, according to legend, he also deliberately held Lips back--intentionally gave him second rate bookings and second rate recording dates, so that Lips would no longer be a threat to his number one client. Harold Cromer strongly believed this to be the case, saying simply: One at a time."
A: Meaning they only let in one black star at a time. Just as Armstrong was considered the undisputed king of the trumpet throughout the balance of the 1920s and the 1930s, and Hattie McDaniel was handed an Oscar for her performance in Gone with the Wind" in 1939--so there was never any space created for other performers to sit alongside them on that top rung. This was societal and pervasive, but it was also to an extent controllable. And there were other geniuses besides Armstrong. Jabbo Smith comes to mind. It may be said that the rules of the market by and large shaped the success or failure of those who elected to throw their hat into the proverbial ring--but the market was also controlled by a relatively small group of white men. And this sentiment was echoed again and again by people who had known Lips and played alongside of him.
Q: Your book is called Luck's In My Corner. Why?
A: Well, because Lips was very much the eternal optimist. And that comes through in his letters, of which we have very few, and, of course in his music. Even when he was playing the blues--there's the sense of hope in the face of darkness. He was also a very funny man.
Q: Can you tell us a funny Hot Lips Page story?
A: Well there are many. He attributed his un-musicianlike record [as a happily married man] to Artie Shaw, of all people! [Who was married many, many times!] And Lips said, and I quote: I watched how Artie did it, and I figured out there were two angles on orchestra leaders' wives. Either you let 'em travel with you, and end up paying alimony to six or seven, or you leave 'em at home, visit 'em a couple of times a year, and support just one. Funny thing, tho, every time you go back, the one you got acts different. It's as good as having six or seven, and it don't cost so much."
There's another one that was told often by the late Ahmet Ertegun: There used to be a place in Harlem called the Plantation Club, which was only for white people. In '36-'37 Ertegun had heard Lips Page's band when the trumpeter had just come east from Kansas City, and the way Ertegun put it, he didn't know very much about anything, except that he thought everybody played other people's numbers and all of them must have been very good friends. So, Ertegun went up to Hot Lips Page and said--he was wearing short pants and he was just thirteen or fourteen years old at the time--"Would you please, sir, play for me 'Satchelmouth Swing'?" That was a number that Louis Armstrong had recorded and made famous. And Lips looked at him and laughed, and said: No, but I'll play Lips Page's special message to a young ofay!"
There's another good one, but it will lose something in translation because it's somewhat dependent on blue language." But it's a radio story: In the early 1950s, while being interviewed by a woman over the air on a Belgian station who apparently thought Hot Lips Page was West African, Lips (who had been out all night) responded to the lady's question So, Lips, how is the Congo these days?" with the retort: What ole mother [bleepin'] Congo!?" That was in 1952 or 1953, and probably the first time that choice expression had been used on the air. The nice lady was not offended, because being Belgian, she had no idea what the word meant! Q: Why is Hot Lips Page important to the history of jazz music?
A: Hot Lips Page's recorded output tells the story, one that reflects nearly every aspect of the blues-inflected idiom at the core of 20th century American popular culture. By way of proxy, in response to the historian's query, Were you there?" Lips's discography provides us with the answer (a definitive yes"), and as such is a testament to his centrality in the world of jazz, blues and R & B. He experienced it all--and like Louis, or Roy, or Miles--he was at the center of it all. His peers respected him, and feared him in cutting contests. That his music came into being in the face of what must have been, by today's standards, an almost unfathomable daily pressure--the pressure to appear non-threatening while remaining vigorously creative; the pressure to exude charm and warmth in spite of feelings of outrage, recrimination and regret; the pressure to conform or not conform to the exigencies of a racist society--this, in and of itself, is remarkable.
But, in response to the question Why is Hot Lips Page important to jazz ?" it's clear that the answer must ultimately reside with the listener. His recordings are harder to find than some, but they are available. In our headlong rush to fit everything we hear into a continuum, and place each musician's contributions like so much produce on a family tree of influences, we may often miss the most delectable of the fruit. Context is important, but it's not everything.
This story appears courtesy of All About Jazz Publicity.
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