SOURCE: This isn’t based on any research. It’s a cover of a genius jazz tune from 1947 by Slim Gaillard, which I recorded because I didn’t get my October song done in time.
ABSTRACT: I suppose I should start by saying I’m not 100% sure if I got the name to this right. The song appears to be labeled “Communications” most places I can find online, but the lyric is pretty clearly “That’s… communication!”
I also need to follow up by saying that, if it’s not totally obvious by listening to it, Slim Gaillard wrote the hook to this song – dah dit dah dit / dah dah dit dah – in Morse code. “Dah” was, at the time, the standard way to say a “dash” and “dit” was the standard way to say a “dot” when reading a code into a radio or telephone. The code here is “CQ,” which basically means, “Anyone out there? Say hi!” Technically, it’s a “general call, all stations.” The “dah dit dit dit” at the end of the intro is “DE,” which just means “from.” In other words, he’s about to identify himself. And the song is his callsign.
I first became aware of Slim Gaillard as that weird dude doing the Spanglish translation behind Al Jazzbeaux Collins and Steve Allen on the Funky Fables album of hip fairy tales, a perfect oddball album given me by a D&D buddy, Brian Schoner. Then he got reintroduced to me in my 30s by Adam Ford, an Australian who got me to check out old American hits like “Cement Mixer” and “Dunkin’ Bagel” and all that stuff Gaillard recorded exactly at the cusp of jazz and rock and roll.
Slim Gaillard was multilingual (born in either Detroit, Alabama, or Cuba, and fluent in Spanish, German, Greek, Arabic, and Armenian) and a multi-instrumentalist (recording tunes on guitar, piano, tenor sax, and vibraphone). He might have been better remembered by mainstream America if he wasn’t so funny — he’d play piano solos with the back of his hands as well as the front, and he recorded songs in Vout-o-reenee, a language he made up (and published a dictionary for). How could a guy so cracked be taken seriously? Well, you don’t have to be serious to be a genius. If you listen to him, it gets pretty obvious that Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, all those rock heroes wouldn’t have happened if Slim hadn’t done what he’d done with the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, before and after his service as a bomber pilot in WWII — which is where he probably picked up Morse code to begin with.
So taking a stab at this was sort of daunting. I’m not a polished musician, and I like noises and accidents. But I kind of wanted to keep this song its own thing. I knew I couldn’t record it as fast as the original, so I laid down a slow scratch track and gradually added bits of things that sounded right until suddenly I realized it was turning into a kind of New Orleans second line thing. I fought the urge to zig-zag away from that. I made the MIDI wind instruments sound as organic as possible, bending notes on the trombone. The banjo is real, as is the guitar and the bass (I did my best to make the electric sound like a fretless standup). Should I admit how I did the hi-hat cymbals? You can probably figure it out.
After the first mix, it felt a little too funereal, so I sped it up digitally just a hair while keeping the pitch the same. But I do think communication as a concept has changed since 1947. The optimism and, well, stress of the radio age — everything is so fast and getting so close all the time! — has given way to a global internet, with all its paranoia and the bleakness underlying every “like and describe!” and ever more polarizing online argument. You can look at Mars through a telescope, though. That was pretty cool then, and it’s pretty cool now.