Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Billie Holiday, Club Bali... and the Internet

It’s funny how some people sometimes long for the great filters of olden days, when there was no internet, from record producers and publicists who had some influence on what music was commercially released or not, to professional journalists and editors who produced well-written, fact-checked copy. Those filters were by no means perfect, but they had their role.

Consider this picture. It was, probably still is, one of the first results when you type “Ray Bauduc”, “Walter Page” or “Claude Hopkins” on the world’s most-used search engine (owners of the blog-platform you’re reading this on). Those are minor names in the great scheme of Western culture. If you type “Billie Holiday”, you’ll probably see this picture too sooner than later.

Thing is, those are not Ray Bauduc, Walter Page or Claude Hopkins.

Not Earth-shattering news, admittedly. From what I gather, someone uploaded the picture to Wikipedia, without citing the original source (just a Flickr link that doesn’t work anymore),and there was a short discussion where someone said
The bass player is Walter Page, the drummer looks like Ray Bauduc. Don't recognize the pianist, will try look, but meanwhile this personnel should help finding it.
Followed by
Ok, I'm guessing that the pianist might be Claude Hopkins.
And thus Bobby Tucker — that's who the pianist is — becomes Claude Hopkins. Just because Wikipedia is a page with heavy traffic and Google really works on quantity of visits, not the quality of the information, we’ve gone from an anonymous person guessing that the man in the picture might be Claude Hopkins, to an actual fact. Even the guess is not very good, a trio of those presumed three backing Billie Holiday in an apparently formal setting — as opposed to a jam session — is quite unlikely.

So, the pianist is actually Bobby Tucker, Holiday’s regular accompanist. He can be seen in a number of pictures on the internet like these, from www.billieholiday.be: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J. He's also identified as such on both Donald Clarke's and Stuart Nicholson's biographies, as well as on Ken Vail's Lady Day's Diary - The Life of Billie Holiday 1937-1959 (Castle Communications, 1996). On page 114, he has this uncredited picture (caption is his):

Billie at the Club Bali, with Al Dunn (drums), Bobby Tucker (piano) and Benny Fonsville [sic] (bass)
Vail dates this gig in 1948 (Holiday went back to Club Bali the following year too, but Tucker wasn't on piano). The Smithsonian archives carry a few more photographs from the same gig, and indicate that they were taken for Scurlock Studio in Washington, an important depository of Black American history.

Billie Holiday at Club Bali, Washington DC
September 10-16, 1948
Regarding the bassist and drummer, unfortunately this is the only picture I know of Al Dunn, who's listed on Bruyninckx discography only once (in the only session led by pianist Coleridge Davis, in 1945 for the "Hub" label). Quite obscure, I'd say. In any case, he's definitely not Ray Bauduc, of Bob Crosby's Orchestra and Bobcats fame.

Left: Possibly Al Dunn. Right: Ray Bauduc.

So, who is this drummer?

Is this Al Dunn?
In profile

As for the bassist, he looks a bit like Walter Page... about twenty years earlier. This picture below is from November 12, 1947, less than a year before the Club Bali engagement (click to enlarge)

Walter Page in 1947 (Source)
I'd say that the bass player with Holiday is younger, and not Walter Page. Regarding the name Benny Fonville (sic), there is on several JATP recordings from 1946, 1947, and 1949. The 1949 recording is by Kenny Kersey's trio, who appears with Fonville on this picture by Bill Gottlieb (from his collection at LoC). "Fonsville" and Fonville don't appear to be the same bassist (both pictures were taken about a year apart):

So, since Vail doesn't give the actual source of his information (although he mentions Bobby Tucker in the acknowledgments), unless someone comes up with more information in order to double check the bass and drummer, we don't have anything solid.

Without other evidence, I wouldn't be surprised if bassist and drummer were two locals hired for the occasion; note that the bassist seems to be sight-reading.

~ ~ ~

What is confirmed from a number of images is that the venue for this gig was Club Bali (source: George Washington University, Washington DC).

Bennie Ventura (?), Conte Candoli, Jackie Cain, Charlie Ventura, Roy Kral
(Note the music stand from the Metronome All-Stars session!)

Barney Bigard, Jack Teagarden, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines

~ ~ ~

Regarding the date, it seems that Holiday performed twice at Club Bali. Once in September 1948, and at least a second one in October 14-20, 1949 according to a bill from that year (right). The pianist in 1949 wasn't Tucker, but a youngster called Carl Drinkard, whose first gig with Holiday was this, as a last-minute substitute for, incidentally, Coleridge Davis (see above), whose playing wasn't suitable for Lady Day's music. Both Donald Clarke and Julia Blackburn carry Drinkard's testimony (spelling Davis's name as Coolridge, presumably a typo) on how he was hired and got to be Holiday's pianist, on and off, for a number of years. Drinkard remembers this happening in late Summer 1949, but Vail also lists October.

As for the music itself, first of all, the singer was put in jail for ten months in 1947-1948, in what is considered the beginning of her serious problems with drugs and the law, including the removal of her NYC cabaret card. Musically, she was on the second half of her Decca years, recording a mix of torch songs, commercial stuff ("Girls Were Made to Take Care of Boys"... was that necessary?) and, not surprisingly for the same label as Louis Jordan, king of the jukeboxes, Rhythm&Blues (or whatever it was called then, the name only came up on Billboard in 1949). These years are sandwiched between the jazzier, 1930s "swing" and the 1950s "mainstream", but show the singer in very good voice, as you can hear in several reissues and this Spotify playlist. This includes an interview where she mentions a truncated project of a Bessie Smith album (she did get to record a few numbers from the Empress' repertoire, whose last ever session took place three days before Holiday's debut on wax).

I leave you with two more images from Club Bali with owner Benny Caldwell, without a date on them (although Holiday's hair-do looks identical to the previous photos), courtesy also of the Smithsonian archives.

Benny Caldwell, Billie Holiday and two friends at Club Bali, 1948 or 1949


"Jazz Lives" @ WordPress.com said...

Nice to see that patient diligent research is still flourishing!

Unknown said...

My name is Will Nelson and I can confirm without a doubt that the drummer is my father,"Al Dunn". (Al Dunn was by -the way a stage name he picked up in the mid-west many years earlier.) I Have several pics and articles about his time at Club Bali. If memory serves he led the house band. Would be interested in adding data to whatever archive record exists on "Al Dunn r

Fernando Ortiz de Urbina said...

Thanks, Mr. Nelson, much appreciated!