poetssetThe singer Belle Gonzalez put out two seven-inch EPs in the 1960s on the Jupiter label involving settings by the now almost forgotten composer Wallace Southam: Poets Set in Jazz (1965) and its follow up Contemporary Poets Set in Jazz (1966). Gonzalez herself claims that they were the first examples of what has since been termed “Jazz Lieder”. I’ve now come across a review of Poets Set in Jazz in The Musical Times, August 1965, and it’s written by none other than Wilfrid Mellers (1914-2008), the composer and author who we will be coming back to in these pages. Mellers took a lot of interest in jazz and popular music, and among his many books is Angels of the Night: Popular Female Singers of Our Time (1986) – so he was a good choice of reviewer. One interesting new piece of information seems to be that the composer Leonard Salzedo – another name we’ll be coming back to – not only contributed his own original songs (the Philip Sydney and Thomas Hood settings) to the project, but also arranged Southam’s two songs. Did the two know each other well? Was Southam essentially an amateur composer, as the title of a later record, Songs of a Sunday Composer (1969) suggests?  The investigation continues. Meanwhile, I reproduce the review here in full.

POETS SET IN JAZZ Belle Gonzalez with sextet (tunes by Wallace Southam and Leonard Salzedo, arrangements by Leonard Salzedo): Time of Roses (Thomas Hood); We’ll go no more a’ roving (Byron); When I am dead, my dearest (Christina Rosetti); My true love hath my heart (Philip Sidney) JUPITER jep OC 37 (13s 6d)
This delightful record looks improbable, in that one wouldn’t suspect there could be an affinity between jazz and English romantic poetry, or even the Elizabethan lyric. The liaison works, however, because the jazz turns out to be not rock-bottom urban blues but cabaret music, whether witty or sentimental; and the themes of commercial ballads have perennially been the same – if with more dubious authenticity – as those of these well-known verses.  Southam’s Byron tune is, in particular, a winner, a quintessence of nostalgia, wherein Belle Gonzalez’s rhythmic elisions and bluesy pitch-distortions manage to combine sentimental involvement with near-ironic detachment in a manner comparable with Byron’s slightly rackish, insidiously lilting stanza. Salzedo’s quick numbers strike home less effectively, though the dead-pan insouciance of My true love makes a point that Sidney – a highly sophisticated as well as a chivalric poet – might have appreciated. WILFRID MELLERS

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