Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Bob Dorough (December 12, 1923 ~ April 23, 2018)

(Bob Dorough has been posthumously named a 2019 NEA Jazz Master.) 
If you include the rhythms Bob Dorough beat out on his highchair tray back in Cherry Hill, Arkansas as a toddler, the bebop jazz legend and lifelong hipster composed, arranged and performed music for an extraordinary 10 decades.    
That seems like an awfully long time until you consider that one of the things that makes jazz so special, which is to say so timelessly vibrant, is that its elders never stop playing and giving back, and the youngsters -- the sensible ones, anyway -- always are eager to learn from them.  
My first face-to-face meeting with Bob was in a booth at a greasy spoon near his home in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, and while we did eventually get around to talking music, the reason for the sitdown was that he had been good friends with a guy about whom I was writing a book.    
The reason I was writing this particular book was that the guy, a popular bar owner and community do-gooder, had the misfortune of being hacked to death by an ax-wielding madman whom the police had never been particularly interested in finding -- and so didn't.  This is because the guy was . . . well, from the wrong side of the tracks and hung out with low lifes like bikers and hippies and jazz musicians like Bob.  That's how the justice system works in those parts. 
It is a testament to Bob's good naturedness that he maintained the kind of grin that so many sweet eccentrics have through a couple cups of diner joe and some buttered toast although he obviously was uncomfortable discussing this unfortunate slicing and dicing.  
He was a youthful 79 when we first spoke and was wearing his gray hair in a ponytail. Which he always did.   
What I didn't know at the time was that my book -- The Bottom of the Fox: A True Story of Love, Devotion & Cold-Blooded Murder -- would touch him deeply, so deeply that he penned a song with an eponymous title that he debuted at a jazz festival in 2010 and put on one of his zillion albums. 
It is not often that we brush shoulders with greatness, let alone become friends with someone so great, but Bob and his wonderful wife Sally and my love Deborah and I did just that.  
Bob Dorough left this mortal coil on April 23 surrounded by family and friends at his Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania home.  He was 94.
Aralee Dorough, Steve Berger, Pat O'Leary, Bob Dorough 
It was a hallmark of that 10-decade career that many people heard Bob over the years but didn't know it.    
Although he played with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Stan Getz and Gil Evans, among other jazz legends, he may hold the world record for uncredited appearances on jazz albums, although he is best unknown as a voice and primary composer of most of the songs in the Schoolhouse Rock! canon.   
In 1971, with jazz money running slow and low, Bob was asked by his boss at the advertising company where he had a day job to set the multiplication tables to music.  His boss cited his children's ability to remember rock song lyrics, but not their school lessons.  That, in turn led to Bob's run on the popular ABC series of educational animated shorts appearing on Saturday morning television in the 1970s and 1980s.  Among his masterful compositions, which my then young kids and millions of others soaked up with sponge-like enthusiasm, were "My Hero, Zero," "Three Is a Magic Number" and my own fave, "Conjunction Junction."  
Conjunction Junction, what's your function?
Hooking up words and phrases and clauses
In complex sentences like:
"In the mornings, when I am usually wide awake,
I love to take a walk through the gardens and down by the lake,
Where I often see a duck and a drake,
And I wonder as I walk by
Just what they'd say if they could speak,
Although I know that's an absurd thought." 
Opined People magazine in 2016: "Not to unduly shame the American education system, but chances are Bob Dorough has had more of an impact on grammar fluency than any other individual in the 20th century." 
The New York Times honored Bob not only with a fulsome obituary, but with a second story devoted to his "Schoolhouse Rock!" masterpieces. 
"For the generation who learned more about math, grammar, history and civics from the interstitial cartoons on . . . 'Schoolhouse Rock!' than they would care to admit, Bob Dorough was one of the most integral influences of their formative years — even if they didn’t know his name," wrote Steve Kandler.   "He was a jazz musician, composer and singer, and the mastermind behind dozens of educational earwigs primarily in the '70s and '80s -- a man who understood that the best way to trick children into learning was to wrap lessons inside irresistible, frequently funky ditties." 
Many jazz fans first heard Bob a few years earlier.  And of course didn't know it.   
That was because producer Teo Macero never credited him as a piano player on Monk's popular Monk album, which was released in 1957.   
Gary Giddins also notes in a wonderful Village Voice profile that Bob's is the "high-pitched, nerdy male voice singing a 115-second [uncredited] panegyric, 'Nothing Like You,' backed by winds and bongos" on trumpeter Miles's Sorcerer. 
Bob released his first album, Devil May Care, in 1956.  It contained a version of "Yardbird Suite" with lyrics by Bob over the famous Charlie Parker song.  Miles liked the album, so when Columbia asked him to record a Christmas song in 1962, he turned to Bob for lyrics and singing duties. 
"Bob?  Bob Dorough?  This is Miles, Miles Davis," Bob would croak in recalling the career-altering phone call from the trumpet master.  "I want you to write me a Christmas song." 
The result was a downbeat tune that fit Miles's famously sour demeanor like a glove.  It was called "Blue Xmas, (To Whom It May Concern)" making Bob one of the few musicians with a vocal performance on Miles's 100-plus albums.  
Blue Christmas, that's the way you see it when you're feeling blue
Blue Xmas, when you're blue at Christmastime
you see right through,
All the waste, all the sham, all the haste
and plain old bad taste

Sidewalk Santy Clauses are much, much, much too thin
They're wearing fancy rented costumes, false beards and big fat phony grins
And nearly everybody's standing round holding out their empty hand or tin cup
Gimme gimme gimme gimme, gimme gimme gimme
Fill my stocking up
All the way up
It's a time when the greedy give a dime to the needy
Blue Christmas, all the paper, tinsel and the fal-de-ral
Blue Xmas, people trading gifts that matter not at all
What I call
Bitter gall.......Fal-de-ral
"Devil May Care" probably comes as close to a Bob Dorough signature song as any.  
When the day is through, I suffer no regrets
I know that he who frets, loses the night
For only a fool, thinks he can hold back the dawn
He was wise to never tries to revise what's past and gone
Live love today, love come tomorrow or May
Don't even stop for a sigh, it doesn't help if you cry
That's how I live and I'll die
Devil may care
You can't listen to a jazz radio station for even a day without hearing "Devil May Care," if not sung by Bob himself, then covered by Diane Krall, Jamie Cullum or Miles himself. In all, the song has been recorded by nearly 60 artists and groups.   
While Bob's piano chops were admirable, his nonpareil ability to interpret lyrics was his trademark.  This includes what is known as vocalese, the singing of lyrics written for melodies that were originally instrumental compositions, usually entirely in syllables. (Think Cab CallowayAl Jarreau and Bob's contemporary, longtime friend and junior by 10 years, Dave Frishberg.) 
Writing about Beginning To See the Light, Bob's 1976 album, Giddins notes: 
"Jazz musicians usually come a cropper when they try to get down with rock tunes; yet Dorough begins with 'Don't Think Twice, It's All Right' in a version I prefer to Dylan's. The rhythm is exactly right, but what locks it down for me is the way he phrases 'Don't think twice, baby, that's all right' -- the last three words emitted in a rapid bullfrog croak."  
Indeed, Bob's voice was something of an acquired taste.   
"Anyone who’s ever taken a singing lesson resents the hell out of Bob Dorough for having the nerve to pass himself off as a vocalist," writes Will Friedwald in Jazz Singing (1990). 
How Bob became a headliner is a story in itself, and one that befits an eccentric.    
Robert Lrod (pronounced Elrod) Dorough was born on Dec. 12, 1923 (the same birth day as vocalists Frank Sinatra and Joe Williams) in Cherry Hill, Arkansas.  His father, Robert, was a salesman, and his mother, Alma Lewis Dorough, worked for the Singer sewing machine company. 
Bob studied violin and piano as a child.  His family moved to rural Plainview, Texas, where he played clarinet in the high school band, and he never completely lost his Lone Star twang.   
He majored in band music at Texas Tech University and in 1943 was called up in the draft, but was declared unfit for combat due to a punctured eardrum (ha!) and assigned to a special services band, an experience that fortunately did not dull his enthusiasm for music. 
Bob moved to New York City in 1949. 
He was playing piano in a Times Square tap dance studio when he was introduced to Sugar Ray Robinson, for my money the greatest boxer of all time, who had temporarily left the ring and was putting together a song and dance revue.  Bob became the revue's music director and traveled with it throughout the U.S. and Europe.  
"I used to hang out a little bit with Dizz," Bob said of that era and trumpet great Dizzy Gillespie.  "That's when I could stay up late." 
Bob left Robinson in Paris and lived there for two years, recording with singer Blossom Dearie, with whom he long collaborated, before moving to Los Angeles where he gigged around, including playing between sets for comedian Lenny Bruce. 
Daughter Aralee was only a few years out of her own highchair when Bob escaped Long Island City, a gritty New York City suburb, for a farmhouse in Mount Bethel, a quaint village near Delaware Water Gap, which is even quainter although it does boast a traffic light.  The Gap is home to the Deer Head Inn, the oldest continually running jazz club in the U.S. and a wonderfully organic embodiment of the notion of the older cats sharing their magic with the younguns, who mature into older cats themselves and in turn share with the latest up and comers.  And have been doing so for over 60 years. 
The biggest reason for Bob's move was so Aralee could start first grade and grow up in a bucolic setting, and this altruistic act was to have unexpectedly wonderful consequences beyond her becoming a great musician in her own right and eventually principal flautist of the world renowned Houston Symphony.    
The Poconos at one time probably had more jazz clubs per capita than anyplace anywhere, a happy consequence of the area's resort industry and one man -- Bob Newman, who had played in Woody Herman's Thundering Herd big band before becoming music director at Mt. Airy Lodge, a gig he held down for most of the 1960s and 70s.    
Newman put together fabulous house bands that would back the biggest stars of the era, many of whom would play Mt. Airy and other big resorts on a Saturday night and then appear on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York City the next night.  Those were the days.  
A musician leaving Mt. Airy to return to New York had to drive by the Deer Head to get to the Portland Bridge and Route 46, the main drag between the Delaware River and the Lincoln Tunnel before Interstate 80 cleaved the heart out of the region, and they would stop in and jam until the cows came home with the immortal John Coates Jr. and other Deer Head regulars.  (It was at pianist Coates's knee that an up and comer by the name of Keith Jarrett cut his jazz teeth.)  
Dorough, who of course played in Newman's house band at Mt. Airy, was one of the first musicians to move to the area from New York, arriving in the early 1960s.    
The trickle was to turn into a flood that included tenor saxophonist Al Cohn, trombonist Urbie Green, pianist-vocalist  Frishberg, bassists Steve Gilmore and Russ Savakus, woodwind artist George Young, keyboard player Wolfgang Knittel, and drummers Bud Nealy and Bill Goodwin.  Goodwin played with alto sax great Phil Woods, first lived in the attic of Dorough's house when he moved to the Poconos, and eventually lured Woods to the Gap.  
Bob co-wrote "Comin' Home Baby," a Top-40 hit for Mel Torm√© in the early 1960s, and produced two albums for Spanky and Our Gang, adding jazz-influenced arrangements to their folky sound.  He acted occasionally and appeared in an episode of the television western "Have Gun -- Will Travel" in 1959.   He has influenced a goodly number of musicians, including blues-jazz improviser Mose Alison and singer-songwriter-comedian Nellie McKay. 
Says the congenitally waggish McKay: "Lou Reed's idea of hell would be to sit in heaven with Bob Dorough," referencing the famously cantankerous New York rocker.
Bob's deep sense of humility and good naturedness was genuine.  That sweet eccentricity I first encountered 15 years ago was not a prop that he would put away when he was off stage.   His wonderfully sung homage to Deborah and I at the Deer Head a while back -- I had requested Duke Ellington's semi-obscure "Flamingo" when he asked how he might help celebrate our anniversary  -- always will be a special moment. 
Typical Bob: He called me on a New Years Day a couple years ago to make sure he had our correct mailing address so he could mail us a copy of his then brand-new Live at the Deer Head Inn album, which happened to be recorded on December 12, 2015, his 92nd birthday.  (We had missed the CD release party because we were at the Blue Note in New York City for Chick Corea's birthday party; he was only 75.) 
Typical Bob: "He would call me and say something like 'I'm coming to town to see an old friend.  Wanna come with me?' " says Steve Berger, Bob's longtime guitar player.  "We'd end up at somebody's place.  Always a piano.  Somebody who needed a little cheering up. Someone who wasn't feeling so well."    
Munich-based saxophonist and composer-producer Michael Hornstein, who toured in Europe with Bob, remembers meeting him for the first time: 

"I landed at JFK in New York, but Bob was not there waiting for me.  He was, which was typical for a jazz musician of that time, tremendously late.  And he looked completely different than what I had pictured him to look like.  I had expected a stylish hipster in a suit, something like the guys on the covers of the albums I owned.  What I saw instead was a hippie with a pony tail and nearly tattered clothes.  We drove through New York, which wasn’t looking pretty at the time, and New Jersey to his house in Mount Bethel.  Bob and his [second] wife Corine (the sister of my godmother) hosted me with generosity and warmth, that I had not experienced before.  There was always something happening.  Every day Bob and I played together in his living room.  Only in hindsight do I understand how patient he was with me." 
Recalls longtime WBGO announcer Michael Bourne:  
"Bob Dorough was the first jazz singer I enjoyed. I was heavily into Brubeck in the ‘60s, but not yet singers.  One of my college housemates owned Bob's Bethlehem album Devil May Care — with Bob looking out from a whirl of orange on the cover.  I traded (I can't remember what) for it and I was immediately delighted by it.

"I'd never heard anyone sing "Old Devil Moon" (or any song) like Bob.  Funny.  Swinging. I was just learning what the words 'hip' and 'cool' meant.  Bob was definitively hip. . . . I never imagined back then that I'd ever be playing that scratchy LP on the radio. Or that I'd get to know him.  And get to be friends with him."   
"Who else could turn the number eight into a heart-breaking ballad?" wrote Lindsay Parker at Yahoo! Entertainment in a tribute to Bob's pedagogical gifts.  "Who could turn zero into a hero?  The number seven into a plucky trickster rabbit, the number nine into a pool-hustling tabby cat, and a conjunction into a railroad boxcar traversing a land where train-hopping vagabonds and curious ducks uttered compound sentences?" 
Bob's first marriage, to singer Jacqueline Wright, ended in divorce.  His second wife, the former Corine Oeser, who had been a dancer, died in 1986. 
Survivors include his wife of 25 years, the former Sally Shanley; daughter Aralee, her husband Colin Gatwood and their son, Corin; two stepsons, Christopher Wolf and Peter Wolf; a brother; 12 nieces and nephews; a multitude of great-nieces and nephews and great-great-nieces and nephews, "and more friends and fans than we can number," as Aralee so beautifully put it in a tribute to her father in the Pocono Record. 
Bob's last performance at the Deer Head was on March 31.  He played a hometown family concert in Mount Bethel on April 8. 
Berger, who had toured the world with Bob since the early 1980s, first heard him play with Bill Takas on April 1, 1979 at Barge Music, a club on what was literally a barge beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.  
"I called him this April 1st to tell him it was our 39th anniversary. He said "It is????!!!!' As enthusiastic as always. 
"He was my best friend.  Father.  Teacher.  Boss. . . . I only saw him get a little unhappy with me once.  If he did get angry, he would turn it into understanding and love.  
"Thirty-five years later.  Trips together around the world later.  Many hundreds of gigs, festivals and thousands of hours of rehearsal, music lessons and hanging later, I say, 'Thanks, Bob.  I'll see you in a minute.' " 
To which Berger added:
"There was this really cool guy two thousand years ago that a few people followed.  A whole bunch of people have been waiting for him to come back, but they missed it.  Bob was it."   
Bob Dorough was not wont to ruminate on his age. 
"Everybody knows that I'm old," he said not long ago before launching into an especially introspective cover of "September Song." 
"I guess I'm a little past September," Bob said after the song.  "Late October, November maybe.  When I reach my December, I'll keep on keeping on." 
Borrowing a line from the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends," Bob once said that his goal in life was "to sing you a song and have you not walk out on me."  In that our huckleberry friend succeeded extraordinarily well, touching so many lives with his joy and good cheer. 
 Bob Dorough with Deborah Olson, Your Faithful Scribe and Rick Chamberlain


chamblee54 said...

I was looking for an archival post. I post re-runs on days when I am too lazy to create original content. I saw a post from 2009, with a reference to you an Andrew Sullivan.
Mr. Sullivan shut down his blog a while back. I am pleased to see that you, and blogspot, are still in the game.

foglpap said...

What a wonderful tribute to my Uncle Robert! I loved this and thank you so much for it! Terry Dorough Fogleson

Unknown said...

Oh I am slow these days and just read your piece,Shaun.
Of course you are a master storyteller,you know Bob better than most and it shows here.
I must tell you that Bob played at the Deerhead on March 31st(Holy Saturday) and a hometown family concert here in Mt Bethel on April 8th. That was enough for him and enough for us!
Love Sally

Shaun Mullen said...

Thank you, Sally.

Piece appended.