Midweek Music Break: “Froggy Bottom”

Almost every chapter in Seems to Fit revolves around a single one of the main characters, even when others are present. It’s a little complicated to move from one character’s head to another’s, in the space of a few days, so I’ve developed some little gimmicks to simplify it for myself.

One of these gimmicks: I listen to that character’s music as I work on his or her scenes.

Yeah — each has his or her own playlist. One favors classical; one, easy-listening music from the 1950s-60s; one, New Age… Two of the characters prefer Big Band jazz from the 1920s through 1940s, but even they have their differences of opinion: one votes for smooooth, even syrupy, and the other for raucous and energetic, even unhinged.

I was working on a chapter from the point of view of one of those latter two guys, his playlist rolling in my headphones, when I suddenly had to look away from the word processor to ask: What the heck is that? Understand, now: these playlists consist of music I own. I’m not using an “Internet radio station” to generate them on the fly; I’ve heard all these songs, many times. But on this occasion a particular number jumped out at me.

That number is called “Froggy Bottom,” and the recording comes from the soundtrack of Robert Altman’s 1996 film Kansas City. Altman grew up in that city. The excellent summary of the film at the Senses of Cinema site points out that the film — superficially (and satisfactorily) about politics, gangsters, and other features of the period which Altman may have remembered — is, at a deeper level, about much else:

These sorts of things are what half the movie is about. The other half is a dream memory of Kansas City jazz. The philosophic, vicious monologist gangster Seldom Seen [played by Harry Belafonte] runs a club in which his space for crime business is contiguous with the musicians’ performance space, and it is his indulgence to have the musicians playing 24 hours a day for his pleasure (like Duke Ellington keeping his orchestra together when it wasn’t profitable). The jazz creeps into the film bit by bit. The music numbers get longer. The music intrudes itself into the other scenes. The music becomes its own story as some of the best jazz musicians of the 1990s play in period costume their version of music 60 years old… At the end of this film, there is only the music.

As for “Froggy Bottom” itself, and the rest of the soundtrack, it is of that era and that place, not commissioned for the film. The song was written by Mary Lou Williams, who was something of an anomaly as a member of various big bands… but not as a singer (the conventional slot for women performers). Rather, Williams was a ferociously talented pianist and songwriter, who remained active well into the 1980s. (The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers says she penned “more than 350 compositions.”)

This isn’t Williams in this selection from the Kansas City soundtrack, however. As the Senses of Cinema review above says, the original Kansas City performers were played by modern jazz musicians. The part of Mary Lou Williams was played by Geri Allen — herself a woman of no small accomplishment, and a master of the jazz keyboard in her own right.

If you’d like to compare the version below with the “real thing,” at least one recording has made its way to YouTube: Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy (!), with Mary Lou Williams herself on piano.

Here’s “Froggy Bottom,” featuring Geri Allen on the keyboard, David “Fathead” Newman on alto sax, and Mark Whitfield on guitar (as well as other personnel I haven’t yet identified):


P.S. See Soul on Soul, Tammy Lynn Kermodle’s biography of Mary Lou Williams, for an analysis of Williams’s style arranging and compositional styles — especially as demonstrated in “Froggy Bottom” and another piece, “Mess-a-Stomp.”

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  1. Ah, love that old time jazz. Reminds me a bit of Bob French, who still plays down in NO.

    And I think the ‘Midweek Music Break’ is now definitely becoming a series. For which we are extremely grateful.

  2. I didn’t get around to thanking you for Harlan Pepper last week, but – belatedly – thank you, thank you, thank you. Much as I envy and resent their extreme youngness, they are very, very good.

  3. Froog: I’m so glad you’re liking these musical selections… especially since I have no way of verbalizing my musical tastes, it helps to find out that intelligent people share them!

    Had to laugh at that “envy and resent” line, but I suspect you knew that. :)

  4. I love that your characters reveal themselves to you musically!! It actually doesn’t surprise me, given the range of posts here and your patterns for connecting music, words, and ideas. It’s simply not the way I think, which makes it all the more interesting.

  5. whaddayamean: My first book’s protagonist was a young woman who listened mostly to (1950s-60s) oldies. As a middle-aged guy, I figured I’d already bitten off enough of a challenge with that “young woman” bit, so I gave her my musical tastes of the moment.

    But it’s always interested me that so many people latch onto different kinds of music from one another, even when the people otherwise have much in common. The monolithic genres we know as “jazz” or “country” music, for example, offer so many nuances and different shadings of category that after you dig a little deeper, you start to wonder why they’re considered the same genre at all.

    And it seems to me, anyhow, that this resembles — resembles a lot — the way that fictional characters themselves can be classified. Just as in real life, it seems completely plausible to me that a given Big Band aficionado might love Benny Goodman’s orchestra, but sort of yawn through Glenn Miller’s more syrupy moments, and why someone who loves both Goodman and Miller might loathe Paul Whiteman. And taking it further, it seems completely plausible that to know a character’s musical taste is to know something important (even if indefinable) about the character. There are probably exceptions, but I’ve never met one: everybody seems to like some kind(s) of music more than others.

    Somewhere, I heard the advice that a writer of fiction needs to know everything about a given (main) character — even though it won’t all go into a book. Music doesn’t openly play a part in the depictions of all of Seems to Fit‘s characters, but it’s just a gimmick I use. (Like some authors know the astrological signs of their characters, and/or where they went to school, and so on.) I bet you use something similar in writing your own fiction, even if I — or you :) — don’t know what it is.

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