Van Lingle Mungooooooo

December 23, 2014

DAVE FRISHBERG

DAVE FRISHBERG

When I bought the 2008 Jetta I’m driving now, I was disappointed but not surprised to find that it did not have a cassette-tape player. Having been born in the era of 78 rpm records, I have long since accepted the fact that sound technology changes every two or three days. Still, I was nonplussed about all the music now trapped on all those cassettes. I have thought about throwing them away but, fortunately, I never did. I say “fortunately,” because I recently learned how easy it is to transfer the sound from those tapes to CDs (which, I know, are another fading medium). One of the first tapes I transferred was something called “Baseball Musak,” a collection of songs and other recordings having to do with our national game.

VAN LINGLE MUNGO

VAN LINGLE MUNGO

Among the cuts on that tape is a jazz tune called “Van Lingle Mungo,” which was written by pianist-composer David Frishberg and released in 1969. Frishberg had composed a melody but couldn’t satisfy himself with lyrics. During this same period, Frishberg leafed through a baseball reference book and came across the name of Van Lingle Mungo, a pugnacious guy who pitched in the major leagues from 1931 to 1945. Mungo’s full name fit perfectly into the cadence of the last seven beats of Frishberg’s melody. After discovering that, Frishberg scoured baseball’s calico past and composed a lyric for his song consisting almost entirely of thirty-seven players’ names, including such melodic monikers as Augie Bergamo, Frenchy Bordagaray, and Sigmund Jakucki.

FRENCHY BORDAGARAY

FRENCHY BORDAGARAY

The result of this improbable combination was described by music critic Ira Gitler as “one of the best jazz works of the 70s.” The song, which one might imagine listening too while sipping a lonely gin-and-tonic in a dark and careworn lounge, has a haunting quality that oddly has as much to do with the names as with the melody.
Van Lingle Mungo, by the way, was a pitcher of some consequence. He averaged 16 wins per season from 1932 through 1936. He struck out 238 batters in 1936, leading the National League. He was on the NL All-Star team in 1934, 1936, and 1937. He suffered an arm injury in 1937 and won only 13 major league games in the next six years. Still, he has a winning lifetime record (120-115) and a respectable lifetime earned-run average (.347) — both enviable achievements.
You can hear Dave Frishberg’s song by clicking HERE:

TAYLOR TEAGARDEN

Taylor Teagarden’s major league baseball career hasn’t amounted to much yet. As of yesterday, he had appeared in only 136 games in five seasons. He has shown a flair for the dramatic on a few occasions—last night being a notable example—but he hasn’t yet become the Jack Teagarden of the diamond.

Jack was another story altogether. As soon as I heard of Taylor T., I wondered if he and Jack were related. Naturally a guy would wonder that, what with the unusual last name and the fact that both of these Teagardens were from Texas.

Well, I say “naturally.” It was natural for me, because of a 78 rpm record that belonged to my parents. I loved that record when I was a kid, and I still do. It’s a rendition of a 1941 Johnny Mercer song, “The Waiter, the Porter, and the Upstairs Maid,” sung by Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, and Jack Teagarden. It’s one of those witty, sophisticated lyrics that Mercer wrote best. You can hear and see that trio singing Mercer’s song at this site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0e1DF4TUYY. Or you can come over Saturday afternoon, and I’ll play it for you on the Victrola. If you don’t know what a Victrola is, you probably already stopped reading.

JOHNNY MERCER

Jack Teagarden, who came from a family loaded with musical talent, was in heady company with Crosby and Martin, and he was a very good crooner himself, as well as a composer and bandleader. Among the highlights of his memorable career were his vocal turns with Mercer and Louis Armstrong. But he made his most indelible mark as an innovative jazz and blues trombonist. He is often referred to as “the father of jazz trombone.” You can learn a lot about this important figure in American cultural history at www.jackteagarden.info.

Although it’s a lot easier than it was in the pre-digital age to answer such questions as, “Is Taylor Teagarden related to Jack?”, I have had trouble finding out. Until I wrote this post, I had found only one reference, buried in an non-authoritative web site, reporting that the catcher thinks he might be the great great nephew of the musical genius. But my friend Brian VanderBeek, a sports writer with the Modesto Bee, responded to this post by reporting that he had met Taylor Teagarden in 2007 when Taylor was playing for Bakersfield in the California League and Taylor, on that occasion, confirmed that Jack Teagarden was his dad’s great uncle.

Taylor is  with the Orioles now, and his season got a late start due to a back injury. It remains to be seen if he will leave in baseball a footprint like the one Jack Teagarden left in music, but Taylor  has already taken advantage of baseball’s unique capacity for providing even the most obscure player with opportunities for heroics.

JACK TEAGARDEN

He came up with the Texas Rangers in 2008, and his first major league hit was a sixth-inning home run off Scott Baker of the Minnesota Twins. Baker had not given up a hit up to that point. And Teagarden’s homer produced the only run in what turned out to be a 1-0 game. When he came off the disabled list for the Orioles on July 14 of this year, he hit a two-run homer that broke up a 6-6, 13-inning tie with the Tigers.

Last night, Taylor got to play Mr. Clutch again as he pinch hit a single in the top of the 18th inning, driving in the winning run as the Orioles beat the Seattle Mariners and pulled into a virtual tie with the Yankees for first place in the American League East. No matter how the rest of his career goes, Taylor T. can always say with another lyricist, Ira Gershwin, “They can’t take that away from me.”
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LOUIS ARMSTRONG

Sometime in the early 1960s, I went with a couple of my cousins to hear Louis Armstrong and his band play at Seton Hall University. I can’t remember how I decided to attend that show; there was not a single Armstrong recording among my LPs – which were dominated by operatic arias and country-and-western songs. I knew Armstrong from his television appearances, and I do recall finding him irresistible: not the trumpeter — I didn’t know from trumpets — the whole package. Whenever Armstrong’s image appeared on the black-and-white screen, I would pay attention. He was unique, and he was entertaining.

I was not aware until I read Ricky Riccardi’s recent book, What a Wonderful World, that the quality that attracted me to Louis Armstrong was the very thing that some folks found irritating, disappointing, even traitorous. Jazz purists objected to Armstrong’s departure from his musical roots in his native New Orleans, and many black Americans objected to his on-stage persona, in which they saw the perpetuation of the minstrel end man – a clown whose vocation was amusing white audiences. This was complicated by the fact that although Armstrong was at the height of his international fame in the heyday of the American civil rights movement, he played no visible part in the campaign — this, despite the fact that he and his band had often felt the sting of prejudice.

In fact, Armstrong refused for decades to appear in New Orleans as long as local laws prohibited mixed-race bands — perhaps an ironic position for him to take, given the fact that one of the raps on him was that he was willing to play before segregated audiences. His explanation was that he played where his manager booked him, and that he played for whoever wanted to hear him — and they were legion. Armstrong maintained that he contributed as much as anyone else to the progress of black Americans, because he paved the way for others to be received by white audiences.

His bookings are an interesting topic in Riccardi’s book. Armstrong’s manager during the last several decades of his career was Joe Glaser, a Chicago tough guy with a criminal background. There was some kind of bond between the two men — so much so that their arrangement was based on a handshake so that Glaser’s financial obligations to Armstrong were not spelled out. Glaser certainly got rich on the relationship, and Armstrong insisted that he had everything he wanted in life, including his  daily regimen of marijuana and an herbal laxative that he treated as kind of a sacrament.

Riccardi describes in some detail the schedule kept by Armstrong and his band, the All Stars. It’s exhausting just to read about it. It was not unusual for the musicians to perform forty one-nighters in a row without a break — and this went on for decades. Outsiders thought Glaser was taking advantage of Armstrong, wringing out every dime he could before the man dropped dead. Armstrong denied this; Riccardi doesn’t seem to accept it, but even in the material the author provides in this book — such as a letter in which Armstrong complains to Glaser about being treated “like a baby” — there’s a strong insinuation that the critics were right. Armstrong himself insisted that he was doing what he wanted to do, but he also complained from time  to time about exhaustion, and he lost more than one player from the All Stars because the grind was just too much.

Riccardi, who is a student of music and an authority on Armstrong, defends Armstrong’s repertoire; the subtitle of the book is The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years. Among the criticisms of Armstrong was that he played almost the same song set night after night, to which Armstrong replied that he played what the paying audience expected him to play. As for the indictment of Armstrong’ s wide grin and rolling eyes, it never occurred to me that those mannerisms were supposed to be a stereotype of a black man — if it had occurred to me, I would have been offended and would not have been at that show at Seton Hall. To me, Armstrong was just being himself. Still, his position on race, as Riccardi presents it in this book, was ambiguous at most. At times he would lose his temper and rant about the way black Americans were treated, but he was also capable of making a statement in which he adopted a shaky rationale based on a distinction between “lazy” black people and industrious ones like him. In the event, Armstrong had almost no black audience when he was recording his enormous pop hits, “Hello, Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World” and whether that was due to his play list or to his attitude toward his race remains a matter of conjecture.

You can watch and listen to Armstrong sing and play “Mack the Knife” by clicking HERE.

I was listening to Jonathan Schwartz on WNYC a week ago today, and he played a recording by Frank Sinatra of one of my favorite songs from the 1930s — “When Your Lover Has Gone.” Schwartz is such an aficionado of recorded popular songs that he often dwells on minor points about such things as the arrangement or the instrumentation or even — as he did in one case that day — on the matter of which cut on a vinyl disk a song might have occupied.

I was surprised, then, that he didn’t discuss the fact that Sinatra didn’t sing my preferred introduction to Einar Swan’s song — which, by the way, was written in 1931 and featured in the film “Blonde Crazy” with James Cagney and Joan Blondell.

JONATHAN SCHWARTZ

On my favorite recording of that song, for instance — the one from Kate Smith’s concert at Carnegie Hall — Kate Smith sings this intro: “From ages to ages, the poets and sages, of love — wond’rous love — always sing ….” But Sinatra’s recording began with the second verse: “What good is the scheming, the planning, the dreaming, that come with each new love affair ….”

Swan, who died at 37, had only one hit song, but it did it right that one time. “When Your Lover Has Gone” has always  been a favorite of vocalists and instrumentalists and it has been covered by Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, and Ethel Waters, among others. It turns out that most artists prefer the introduction that Sinatra chose, and they drop the first verse altogether. I would try to make an argument for my preference, but considering the talent arrayed against me, what would be the point?

Einar Aaron Swan in a photo, circa 1927, published in the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram

There is an interesting article about “When Your Lover Has Gone” with some samples of recording of the song at JazzStandards.com. Follow THIS LINK.

There is also an extensive article about Swan at JazzHistoryDatabase.com, and you can reach it at THIS LINK.