If many of today's jazz musicians and singers lack anything, it's curiosity. Talent they've got, but a deep interest in the past beyond what they already know seems alien to their approach. Based on the CDs that cross my desk, the same two dozen standards are being recorded endlessly—At Last, Autumn Leaves, When Lights Are Low, Like Someone in Love, The Very Thought of You and so on. What's hurting the music isn't a lack of venues or long solos. It's a lack of imagination and a stubborn refusal to explore the music's history and re-interpret compelling, overlooked standards. [Pictured above, Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman]
For example, the music of Tommy Wolf and his range of lyricists, including Fran Landesman, could use a revisit. Wolf was a pianist at the Jefferson Hotel in St. Louis in 1950 when brothers Jay and Fred Landesman dropped in with their wives, Fran and Paula. They requested a few offbeat tunes and were delighted by Wolf's interpretations. The Landesman brothers decided to open their own place and rented a storefront in St. Louis, filled the room with antiques and called the club the Crystal Palace. [Pictured above: Fran Landesman, Tommy Wolf at the piano, Larry Hagman atop the piano and Richard Hayes during the 1959 recording session for the Wolf-Landesman musical The Nervous Set]
A poet and something of a minx, Fran slipped one of her many humorous poems in Wolf's pocket one Saturday night in 1951. Impressed, Wolf set music to the words, and they called the song This Little Love of Ours. A flurry of songs followed. Among the artists who stopped into the Crystal Palace in the early '50s while performing in town were vocalist Jackie Cain and her husband, singer-pianist Roy Kral. On the prowl for new material, they remarked that the Wolf-Landesman songs were like "show tunes in search of a show." [Pictured above: Jackie Cain and Roy Kral by Ray Avery/CTSImages.com]
JazzWax: What did you think of Tommy Wolf?
Jackie Cain: Seeing him perform was an eye-opener. He was doing all these wonderful original tunes he had written with Fran. Tommy played and sang at the piano. His songs written with Fran included Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, You Inspire Me and I Love You Real. Their songs were very clever and sounded as if they had been written for us. After the set, Tommy told us about Fran.
JW: What did you tell him?
JC: We asked Tommy to send us a copy of Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most. He said many people had wanted to record it going back to the time he and Fran had written it [in 1952] but no one ever did. [Photo above of Jay and Fran Landesman by Vernon Smith]
JW: Why not?
JC: Tommy said it was too avant-garde for some audiences. Which is true. It's not an easy song but has become an underground hit and standard just by being done by so many artists because the artists who do it love it. The lyrics don’t circle back and repeat. It’s not like a true pop song. It’s poignant, beautiful and one big, long story.
In 1956, Wolf recorded Wolf at Your Door—an album of 11 songs for Fraternity Records. The next year he recorded the album Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most for the same label, backed by bassist Monty Budwig and drummer Shelly Manne.
The Tommy Wolf catalog with Fran Landesman and other co-writers is rich with smart songs just waiting for a smart singer—or pair of singers—to revitalize them. Their songs include Say Cheese, So It's Spring, You Inspire Me, I Love You Real, Apples on the Lilac Tree, It Isn't So Good It Couldn't Get Better, You Smell So Good, From an Ancient Proverb, Will Love Come Along Again? and The Ballad of the Sad Young Men.
Wolf died in 1979; Landesman died in 2011.
JazzWax tracks: Both of Tommy Wolf's albums are available as downloads here and here. Also, Jackie & Roy's Bits & Pieces and Free & Easy, which cover a number of Wolfs songs with Landesman and others, are available as a download for just $8.99 here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Tommy Wolf singing You Inspire Me...
Here's Jackie Cain singing and Roy Kral playing Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most...
And here's Jackie singing the Wolf-Wayne Arnold gem, So It's Spring...