Saturday, September 22, 2007

Liner Notes for Beverly Kenney's "Lonely and Blue" - SSJ Records

Imagine my surprise in the late 1980s when I found a reference to Beverly Kenney in a collection of writings by the Beat Generation essayist, Seymour Krim. It was the first time I'd seen her name in posthumous print since she committed suicide in 1960. Small matter that her name was misspelled, i. e, “Kenny.”

There was a time, though, when this singer’s name was everywhere, at least in jazz circles: “She’s a top bet for jazz rooms, there the crowds will go for her looks as well as her vocals” (Variety, 1956), “a gifted singer with good taste in the choice of songs she sings and a plethora of natural equipment with which to sing them” (Barry Ulanov in Down Beat, 1956), and “the kind of ability and potential that should enable her to stay a long time” (Down Beat, 1955).

But not long after that brief mention of Beverly KENNY, there came a relative deluge, in the form of an article about her in, of all places, the Nov '92 issue of the U.S. men’s fashion magazine, GQ. It seems that its author, New York disc jockey, singer, and son of famed songwriter, Arthur Schwartz, Jonathan Schwartz, had long since relegated Beverly Kenney to what he describes as his "A shelf" of recordings, alongside "Sinatra, the early Miles Davis, Beethoven string quartets, anything for the cello, the Verve Billie Holiday, [and] the original cast recording of Carousel." To say that Schwartz' affection for Kenney placed him in the vast minority is an understatement. But only as regards the U.S., for even though she has long been forgotten in her native land, Kenney is still a name known to most Japanese devotees of jazz singing. There were six lp's three on Roost, three on Decca that have remained mostly in print all these years in Japan. And in 2007, this label released a seventh volume, a demo session, entitled “Snuggled on Your Shoulder.”

Schwartz truly did his homework, including his revelation of the name of a lover of the singer, a dazzling, legendary fifties Greenwich Village professional intellectual, Milton Klonsky. A kind of Beat Generation guru with a huge intellect and an ego to match, Klonsky apparently even inspired her to write poetry.

The article spurred me on to begin, using clues contained therein, undertaking some Kenney investigation on my own. I contacted several individuals whose paths had crossed hers during the brief period of Kenney’s rapid musical ascendancy in the mid-1950s and who were kind enough to answer some of my questions about her. The one thing that most agree upon is that Beverly Kenney was of a psychological disposition somewhat at odds with her upbeat vocal style. Musician Ralph Patt who worked with Kenney in Larry Sonn’s band: “I remember what a great singer she was but she seemed pretty unhappy and not too stable, so I wasn't surprised at her untimely death. A great loss” Jazz singer-pianist Audrey Morris recalled: “It was customary for the visiting singers to hang out with the locals a lot, go to hear all the others, etc. and I often asked Beverly if she wanted to join in, but she never did.” Singer Beverly Kelly‘s recollections of Kenney echo almost word for those of Audrey Morris and Ralph Patt: “sad,” “unhappy,” “depressed.” Ironically, because of the similarity in their names, more than four decades later, the still professionally active Kelly continues to quash rumors of her own demise.

But there were two major exceptions to this downbeat point of view of Kenney. One was her closest female friend, actress Millie Perkins:

"Beverly could be pensive, moody, but she was wonderful.” Perkins is at great pains to underscore that she never saw Kelley’s suicide coming. As for Kenney’ lover for the last year-and-a-half of her life and, whose name I have chosen to withhold for reasons of privacy, he was shocked by her untimely death, though not as surprised as was Perkins. In an extended memoir of his relationship with the singer, he writes of a red flag alert that came up unexpectedly several months into their affair:

“We went out for dinner and then to front-row seats in the theater. About half-way through the show, Beverly said she wanted to leave and so we did . She seemed a bit distant, and said she was not in the mood for it, and so we walked back to the apartment. By now it was about ten o’clock and Beverly went into the bathroom and I went to the bedroom to get undressed. After about 15 minutes, it occurred to me that it was quiet, in the bathroom. No toilets flushed, no showers, no sinks, no sounds. I went to the bathroom door; it was very still inside. I called to Beverly and there was no reply. I called again louder thinking she might have fallen asleep. Still no answer. Next, as my mind started racing with scary thought, I kicked in the locked bathroom door. As I pushed inside, I saw Beverly sprawled on the floor, unconscious.” Next to her lay an empty bottle of sleeping pills.”

Up to that point in their relationship, the lover had not a single clue that Kenney was in any way troubled. And when she recovered a few days later, all was back to seeming happy normalcy until the next (again) thwarted attempt a few months later. However, on her third attempt, a year afterward, she was “successful.” Her lover had the sad experience of hearing her death announced on the radio. “The last paragraph of his memoir reads as follows:

“Beverly was one of a kind, a truly enchanting person, and I choose that word carefully. Now, many years later, I look at her pictures on the CD covers, put on the stereo and once again hear her sweet, innocent voice. And try to think only of the good times.”

Unlike the first SSJ volume, “Snuggled,” these cuts have been released before, but only after a fashion. The tracks herein were made for a radio transcription service in the early 1950s, prior to Kenney’s first commercial recordings. Unfortunately, the service has long ceased operations; thus, with a couple of exceptions, the composers of the songs have fallen through the cracks of time. What IS known about the writers is that they were mostly unknown and most likely paid to have their wares recorded. In exchange, the sides were sent to U.S. broadcasters with hopes that the songs would receive radio exposure. The two songs for which I have been able to ascertain authorship are: “That Pyramid Jazz” (Frank Panella, Ben Fields, Louis Zuber) and “Long Lean and Lanky” (by the well-known r n‘ b writer Rudy Toombs). In fact, both titles had been recorded previous to Kenney’s version. The tracks contained herein were scattered about eight different recordings, which were sent to radio stations in the form of 12 inch LPs.

What is also known about the recordings are the musicians on the session, who constitute a veritable who’s who of jazz players circa the early 1950s. They include: Eddie Safranski, arranger-bass; Dale McMickle, trumpet; Al Klink, tenor sax; Dick Hyman, piano; Mundell Lowe, guitar; Don Lamond, drums. It is a measure of their experience and musicianship that the majority of them had, at one time or other, either appeared or recorded with Frank Sinatra. Leader Safranski was especially active on the New York music scene at the time these recordings were made, not just as a session player, but also music producer. The transcription service that originated these sides also released many dozens of other efforts also overseen by Safranski.

The bassist made his initial big splash in the music world as a bassist for Stan Kenton. Settling into a less-nomadic lifestyle in the late 1940s, he eventually became a staff player for the National Broadcasting Company. From the late '60s until his death in 1974 at age 55, he ran workshops and master classes for a bass manufacturer, and played swing and bop with various combos in the Los Angeles area.