the museum of americana

a literary review

“Twisted,” Untwisted—Nonfiction by Amy Hassinger

“Everybody goes to analysts nowadays,” says vocalist Annie Ross. It’s 1959, Chicago. She’s at a staged party on an episode of the TV show Playboy’s Penthouse, sitting on a hearth next to Tony Bennett. Somebody—it looks like Hugh Hefner—has just asked her, faux-casually, if she’d do a song. “All right if I do something I wrote?” she asks. Jon Hendricks, to her right, snaps out the tempo. Off-screen, Count Basie begins twinkling the keys. Annie gets up languidly, hands her cigarette to Bennett, and walks to the center of the room. “About five years ago I wrote a song about going to an analyst,” she goes on. “It’s called ‘Twisted.’”

                                        My analyst told me 
                                        that I was right out of my head. 
                                        The way he described it,
                                        he said I’d be better dead than live.

What Annie Ross doesn’t say is that she wrote the lyrics to “Twisted.” Tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray recorded the original tune in 1949. Annie’s “Twisted” came out in 1952 on a record called King Pleasure Sings/Annie Ross Sings and took off, while Wardell’s “Twisted” remained esoteric, a footnote to Annie’s stardom.

Twisted is a bad ankle, a tangled bed-sheet, a bunching cord, a choking vine, a torqueing dance. Twisted is crazy, “off,” deranged, sick in the head, sexually perverse. Twisted is the truth bent to distortion, a snaking lie. Twisted is also a unifying force: the winding together of separate strands, a braid, a brain. One thing created from several.

*
 
I haven’t found any extant footage of Wardell playing “Twisted,” but you can see a blurry clip of him playing “I Cried For You” with Count Basie in Abraham Ravett’s experimental documentary, Forgotten Tenor. It’s 1950. Wardell opens with a smooth, swinging solo, his long, light-skinned cheeks hollowing every time he blows. When he finishes, he blends back into the band, keeping time with an awkward two-step while vocalist Helen Humes takes centerstage. He looks a little bored while she sings, maybe a little self-conscious—someone has obviously told the horn players to do this two-step, and he doesn’t seem to like it much—but then, he flashes a wide, brilliant smile. You get the impression of a good guy: affable, easy-going, solid. Not in the least bit crazy.

That personality comes through his horn. Listen to his original 1949 recording of “Twisted” and you’ll hear it, along with his impressive musical creativity. The track opens with a rhythmic vamp from Roy Haynes (drums) and Tommy Potter (bass), establishing the tonic. Two measures later, Al Haig (piano) joins in, outlining the tonic along with Potter—1-2-3-rest, 1-2-and-3-rest—and leading into Wardell’s head, a sinuous melody, indulgent in chromaticism, that he blows over the changes. He follows with a swinging solo, conversational and quick. Twelve-bar blues, Wardell Gray-style. 

Three years after Wardell lays down that original track at Prestige Records, Bob Weinstock hands a stack of albums to 22-year-old Annie Ross and tells her to find a tune she likes and write some lyrics. That evening, Annie listens to Wardell’s “Twisted” over and over and over. Something about it—maybe its foot-tapping swing, maybe its melodic virtuosity, maybe its title—grabs her, and pulls her inside, and soon she’s deep in it, listening, writing, writing, listening, the night falling dark outside the window.

*
 
Annie Ross. One of the great female jazz vocalists of her time. The high-trumpet blast of a voice in the world-famous trio of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. Possessor of an astounding vocal range—gravelly alto, brassy squeaks of soprano, and everything in between. Show tunes, standards, bebop noodling—Annie could sing anything, with perfect pitch and heartfelt feeling.

Wardell Gray. People called him “Bones” or the “Thin Man.” He was shy, sensitive, and studious, a lover of literature and good food. And he had a great ear—“could hear paint dry,” according to his second wife Jeri Gray. Soaked in swing, a devotee of tenor sax great Lester Young, Wardell could play bebop with the best of them, and did, including Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon. Gordon called Wardell’s playing “fluid” and “clean,” and said he had a “profusion of ideas.”

Ideas is not the word I’d use,” says clarinetist Buddy Defranco in Forgotten Tenor. He prefers the word patterns. “The patterns are like the words in any language. You use the same words, but it’s where you place them, how you place them. That comes from within.”

Within: that mysterious territory. The inner vault, the creative matrix. Inaccessible without concentration, a passion for delving, and intense listening.

*
 
According to Brian Ross’ documentary, No One But Me, Annie’s Scottish vaudeville-performer parents brought her to LA when she was four, to visit her aunt, singer and Hollywood star Ella Logan. They wanted Annie to have a career in show business. Annie was a natural—her mother once found her singing to an appreciative audience in a train station ladies’ bathroom. People used to joke that they wanted to buy her.

Annie’s parents flew back to Scotland, leaving her with Ella. As Annie watched their plane take off, she cried, “Don’t sell me! Don’t sell me!” But it was as if they had. Not to her aunt, but to their own idea of who she should be. An analyst would undoubtedly have much to say on the subject. 

Annie did what she knew how to do: she performed. Sang “The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond” on Our Gang Follies when she was seven. Played Judy Garland’s little sister in Presenting Lily Mars at eleven. Won an MGM contract that allowed her to attend a chichi school in Beverly Hills. At fourteen, she won a songwriting contest with her tune “Let’s Fly.” Johnny Mercer recorded it. Still, her unloving—or maybe envious—aunt told her she should think about becoming a set designer, that she’d never be a singer, she didn’t have the “magic.”

“I didn’t really want for anything,” Annie says, in No One But Me. “Except love. Except roots. And gradually, because you know you have to, you remove yourself. . .You adapt.”

In tenth grade, Annie dropped out of high school and left for Europe. In Paris, she met Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, James Moody, and Kenny Clarke, and immersed herself in bebop.

One night years later, performing “Twisted,” Annie sings, “(My aunt always) told me . . .” “Twisted,” Annie Ross-style.

*
 
Fear of rejection, of abandonment. One of our primary fears, originating at the experience of birth itself, says Freud. Everybody feels it—the anxiety of being separated from our loved ones. And if actual abandonment has happened to you—especially as a child—the fear lodges deep, becoming a personality feature, a motivating force. Attachment theory says people often respond to that deep fear in one of two ways. 
 
     1.  You attach deeply to others, even to the point of co-dependence.

     2.  You don’t attach well at all.

You remove yourself. You adapt.
 

After Annie’s move to Paris, she and bebop drummer Kenny Clarke (known as “Klook” after a signature drumbeat of his) became lovers and had a son together, Kenny Clarke, Jr. They returned to the States and tried to make a life of it in the Bronx, where they shacked up with Bird and his family. But they were out gigging nights, and had trouble finding good caretakers for the baby. “Nobody would take what they called ‘a half-breed child,’” comments Annie. Eventually, they brought Kenny, Jr. to Pittsburgh to be raised by Klook’s family.

Wardell, too, had a child. A daughter, Anita, with his first wife, Jeanne Goings. Anita was born in 1941, in Michigan. But Wardell left Jeanne for Jeri, a chorus line dancer at the Club Three Sixes, where Wardell played. Jeri introduced Wardell to Earl Hines, and soon enough, he was touring the country with the Earl Hines Orchestra. He left Anita behind.

A musician’s life makes a line. Note to note, chord to chord, gig to gig, city to city. Your loved ones hundreds of miles away. Loneliness and fear lurk at the edges of the music. Will I screw up? Look like a fool in front of everybody? Am I hip enough for this crowd, this band? Am I too square, or too far-out? Will they get me? When’s my next check coming in? What’s my next gig? Will I get enough to eat/pay my rent/get home? Does/do my wife/husband/family still love me? How long can I keep this thing going?

Down the block is the dealer with a balm to calm the jumping nerves.

“Everybody I knew, except Wardell, was using heroin at that time,” writes Hampton Hawes in his autobiography, Raise Up Off Me. “That time” was the nineteen-forties, Central Avenue in downtown LA, where the “pimps and prostitutes, dealers, promoters, pool-hall players, and the white middle-class chicks, the rebels who were turning away from secretary gigs and Horace Heidt” went to hear bebop, the “realness of the black music.”

Bebop and heroin went together like childhood and dreams, like analysts and neurotics, like Bird and Dizzy. Bebop: Fiery virtuosic runs, complex chord progressions, flatted fifths, hyped-up flashing syncopations. Quintets and quartets instead of swing’s big bands. Harmonic substitutions. Melody? Take it or leave it. Maybe at the head—a brief recognizable tune—but after that, you took off. Anything was possible. Heroin was the warm blanket that took away the fear. Everybody doing it. If you wanted to sound like Bird, you had to shoot up—or so the mythology went. Hampton Hawes: “You try it, it feels good, and there you go.”

The musicians fell, one after the next. Bird. Hampton Hawes. Annie Ross. Wardell Gray.

*

 

May 25, 1955. The Benny Carter Orchestra is playing the new Moulin Rouge, Las Vegas’ first integrated club. It’s between sets. Wardell steps outside with Teddy Hale, a junkie dancer, and Teddy’s girlfriend. They slip behind the Foster Freeze to find their man, then head to Hale’s hotel room for a fix.

Wardell’s chair remains empty when the second set starts. After the third set, fellow tenor man Teddy Edwards picks up Gray’s horn and packs it away.

The next day, cops find his body in a ditch outside of town, skull cracked, neck broken. His death certificate reads: “Contusion of the brain due to blow on head.” And “fracture of the 5th and 6th cervical vertebrae.”

Teddy Hale’s story was that Wardell shot up on the bed in the hotel room, OD’ed, then fell on his head on the cement floor. Hale panicked and drove the body outside of town, where he dumped it.

But: a broken neck from falling off a bed? And bruises on the brain?

Hale got ninety days. Wardell got eternity. A brutal end to all that genius. Sudden and final abandonment. His line, smashing to a stop.

Annie kicked her habit, eventually. She’s in her eighties now, still singing.

*

 
1959. The Playboy’s Penthouse tape: 
Chorus over, Annie shrugs, 
a wry look on her face, while 
the rhythm section chunks down  
the beat. She hands it over to Basie  
on piano, who claims his space 
with a percussive triplet pattern. 
Annie’s face lights up,
the crowd laughs in delight, Basie
smiles while Annie claps along 
as the chorus rounds its bend. 
Basie turns in her direction. 
Annie moves as if to sing, 
but Basie plays a new figure, 
as if the music wouldn’t let him 
go just yet. Annie turns 
back, surprised. He holds his hands up 
in helpless apology—she gestures 
please go on—the crowd laughs. 
He does. She snaps on the 2 and 4, 
a gauzy shawl hanging from 
her elbow, while Basie charms the room, 
arching his eyebrow, gentling the notes,
and gradually turning to Annie, whose whole 
body is poised, listening, while Basie
raises a finger and gets it ready 
to point at her, even as 
she turns back to the crowd and starts 
the next chorus right on the—

*

 

Downbeat awarded Annie the New Star Award in 1952 after the release of “Twisted.” Soon afterward, she began singing with Jon Hendricks and Dave Lambert, and the trio soared into the jazz stratosphere. 

Wardell’s swinging solo took off with Annie’s lyrics. “Twisted” has been covered by umpteen jazz vocalists. Mark Murphy—very bebop. Bette Midler—very Bette Midler. Marlena Shaw spins it beautifully—R&B-inflected and swinging. Crystal Waters does a somewhat atonal version, off-pitch, a banging piano behind her, crazy for sure. Jane Monheit does it in a slower swing, sultry, and pitch-perfect. Her claim to craziness, though, is unconvincing.

I first met “Twisted” as a teenager, listening to Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark,” and for years thought she’d written it. Joni changes a few of Annie’s lyrics (angry young men instead of A. Graham Bell; idiomatic logic instead of the reasoning and the logic). On purpose or by mistake, I don’t know. It wasn’t until I tried singing it myself that I traced it back to Annie Ross and then Wardell Gray, untwisting the line the song made.

The challenge—in jazz, as with writing—is to take the many-layered song, full of other people’s ideas, or patterns, derived from their own inner vault—and make it new, make it yours. When I sing “Twisted,” I try to hear the echoes: Wardell Gray’s easy swinging brilliance, blown from a life battered by loneliness, racism, and addiction and finally extinguished by a violent sudden death; Annie Ross’ empty privilege, the abandonment she both endured and inflicted, and her own addiction, as well as her eventual determination to get clean. The sense of humor, insight, and sophistication they both shared. Also, Joni Mitchell’s liquid literary languor. And as I sing, I try to add something of my own. A few phrasing differences, maybe. Some ineffable mix of my own memories of feeling misunderstood, along with a vague striving toward a long-ago hipness I will never achieve. I know I work too hard when I sing it. I’ll never be able to perform it with the same relaxed poise as Annie Ross or Wardell Gray. But I’ll keep at it. Listening helps, down into the fear, the loneliness, deep inside your own crazy, the swinging wilderness of mind. That, it turns out, is where the joy is: all twisted up with the rest of it, and all of it wound into one. 

 

~~~

Amy Hassinger is the author of the novels Nina: Adolescence, The Priest’s Madonna, and After the Dam. Her writing has been translated into six languages and has won awards from the American Best Book Awards, IPPY, Creative Nonfiction, Publisher’s Weekly, and the Illinois Arts Council. She’s placed her work in many publications, including The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Amy teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois, and in her free time enjoys singing with her band, The Jaybirds, and bothering her children.