Two Sugars

The song Sugar (That Sugar Baby Of Mine) was written by Maceo Pinkard, Edna Alexander and Sidney Mitchell way back in the 1920s and quickly became a jazz standard played in various ways by various musicians. To illustrate its versatility as a vehicle for improvisers here are two very different versions that are favourites of mine that I’ve had reason to remember recently.

In 1980 I bought an album by the extraordinarily underrated Scottish Jazz singer Jeanie Lambe with the Danny Moss Quartet when it first came out. The British tenor saxophonist Danny Moss was married to Jeanie Lambe from 1964 until his death in 2008. Jeanie passed away last year at the age of 79. Many versions of Sugar are slow and slushy but this a straight-ahead swinging take on it, played at a jaunty tempo, with a fine solo by Danny Moss in the middle.

The second version is totally different. It was performed by the Newport All-Stars at a midnight concert in Paris in 1961. The band was led by pianist George Wein who passed away on 13th September. As well as being a musician in his own right, George Wein owned and ran the famous Storyville club in Boston during the late 40s and early 50s but was perhaps most famous for being behind the annual Newport Jazz Festival, which began in 1954 and is still going to this day. It was quite usual at these festivals to have an all-star band playing in support of various solo artists, which is why Jack Teagarden and Buck Clayton turned up playing behind Chuck Berry at the 1958 Festival. George Wein also persuaded Thelonious Monk to allow Pee Wee Russell to sit in with his Quartet on clarinet for a set – I have the record of that gig and it’s every bit as strange and wonderful as you might imagine!

An eccentric character who struggled with alcoholism, Pee Wee Russell (real name Charles Ellsworth Russell) was somewhat unreliable as a musician but although he was frequently wayward he had a unique voice and, when he was on good form, a beautifully lyrical way of playing with a really original approach to harmony. It might surprise you to know that Sidney Bechet was a big fan of Pee Wee as – no less surprisingly – was Benny Goodman. The great Coleman Hawkins said of Pee Wee in 1961:

For thirty years, I’ve been listening to him play those funny notes. I used to think they were wrong, but they weren’t. He’s always been way out, but they didn’t have a name for it then.

I’ve always been drawn to very original musicians like Pee Wee Russell; the sort that when you hear just one note you recognize immediately who it is. It’s not all about technique. Pee Wee had soul. Messrs Bechet, Goodman and Hawkins et al knew that for all his technical deficiencies he was the genuine article, a complete original.

I’ve always felt that one should judge musicians by their best playing rather than their worst and, on that night in Paris, Pee Wee produced this achingly beautiful and hauntingly tender rendition of Sugar, played as a slow ballad. He’s introduced on this track by George Wein who aptly described him as “The Poet of the Clarinet”. You can of course listen to the track and decide for yourself, but I think this is gorgeous.

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