Ahmad Jamal: Greasepaint Roar

“Three massive jazz standards emerged from Greasepaint: Who Can I Turn To, A Wonderful Day Like Today and Feeling Good.” When Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s musical The Roar of the Greasepaint — the Smell of the Crowd opened on Broadway in 1965, It was a follow-up to their hit collaboration on Stop the World — I Want to Get Off from 1962. The earlier musical gave us two massive pop standards: Once in a Lifetime and What Kind of Fool Am I, with two lesser hits: Someone Nice Like You and Gonna Build a Mountain. A year later, three massive jazz standards emerged from Greasepaint: Who Can I Turn To, A Wonderful Day Like Today and Feeling Good, with a minor hit in The Joker. Who Can I Turn To would be covered by dozens of pop singers and jazz instrumentalists and remains vital today.

opened in London in August 1964 and then at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre in May 1965. Two artists who devoted albums to jazz interpretations of the entire show were Ahmad Jamal and Herbie Mann. Interestingly, Jamal recorded his in February 1965 and Herbie Mann’s was recorded for Atlantic in March. Both were done before the show even opened in New York.

That’s because of a brilliant marketing campaign. Though the English production never caught on or made it to London’s West End, American producer David Merrick saw the show in Liverpool and decided it was cost-efficient enough to bring to the States. He not only started out with a pre-Broadway tour of the U.S. with Anthony Newley in the lead role but also convinced RCA to record and release the cast soundtrack before the show reached New York. Merrick also convinced every label he could reach to record versions of the show’s songs, particularly Who Can I Turn To. Tony Bennett’s signature version came out in November 1964, months before the musical opened on Broadway, probably using a demo to learn the song.

Ahmad Jamal’s album, The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd, was recorded for the Argo label and was produced by Esmond Edwards, with liner notes by Nat Hentoff. Jamal was joined by Jamil Nasser on bass and Chuck Lampkin on drums. The songs don’t appear on the album in the same order in which they appear in the show, adding a delightful randomness to the music.

Each song is treated to Jamal’s elegant keyboard approach, with the pianist leaving lots of space in his right hand. This Dream is a good example of Jamal’s style applied to the show tunes. The same goes for Who Can I Turn To, which features an unusual bossa nova beat. And on A Wonderful Day Like Today, Jamal intermingles block chords, a robust left hand and runwaway lines in the right, high up on the keyboard.

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There’s little interaction between jazz and Broadway these days. Part of the reason for their separation, I suppose, is that Broadway musical numbers no longer carry the commercial punch and addiction they once did. In the old days, singers like Tony, Andy Williams, Nancy Wilson and Sammy Davis Jr. could record Broadway songs in advance of a musical’s opening, turning them into standards and driving audiences to the theater. Today, too few musicals feature songs with catchy melodies. For example, I don’t believe a single jazz artist has taken on Hamilton’s score. And maybe for good reason. As successful as the show has been, I’m not sure anyone walks around trying to shake the show’s songs from their head.

JazzWax tracks: Sadly, Greasepaint by Ahmad Jamal never made it into the digital format and is today unavailable except on vinyl. Herbie Mann’s Greasepaint is available (here), but it isn’t nearly as good.

Hopefully a label somewhere someplace will make this one available again on CD or as a digital download. It’s fabulous.

JazzWax tracks: Here’s This Dream

This Dream

And here’s Who Can I Turn To

Who Can I Turn To

A special thanks to Doug Paterson and David Langner.