Guest article: ‘Slim Gaillard’s Avocado Seed Soup and other Vout-O-Reeny delicacies’ by Sam Berlin

We’re going to cook up a fine dish, real groovy. Wrap up some fine grape leaves and chip up a little lamboroonie. Sprinkle on a little fine riceorootie and a little pepporoonie, a little peppovoutie. And sprinkle on a little saltoroonie to put the seasoning in there, that makes it really mellow. Then you take and you nail an avocado seed up in the ceiling and let it vout for a while.

Introduction to ‘Gaillard Special’, Jan 1946.

Of all the great songs written about food, and there have been many, few are like those of Bulee ‘Slim’ Gaillard. Often disregarded in mainstream histories of jazz, Gaillard is probably best remembered for inventing his own idiosyncratic ‘slanguage’, Vout (or Vout-O-Reenee). More of an approach to talking than a strict language as such, it largely consisted of adding nonsensical suffixes like oroonee or macvootee or even skoodlivootimo to words. For Slim, the pleasure of words lay in their potential to baffle and bemuse as much as communicate.

For a musician who integrated humour and nonsense into his performances, food was an obvious source of inspiration. Food has long been a theme for writers of nonsense-poetry and music, perhaps because it is somehow simultaneously ubiquitous and strange. The particular art of Gaillard’s songs, however, seems to come from their ability to confuse the pleasure of absurdity with the pleasure of food and of music, whilst never losing their sense of irreverent coolness. Gaillard’s interest in food and in languages (he reportedly spoke about five) seems to have originated from the nomadic life that he led from a young age. There is much debate over Slim’s origins but, according to the man himself, he claimed to have been born in Cuba to a German-Jewish ship’s steward and an Afro-Cuban mother. The story goes that, whilst accompanying his father on a trip to Crete, he missed the time to re-board the liner and was accidentally left behind, never to see his family again.

Jump to Los Angeles, California, 1945. Gaillard had flown a bomber plane over the pacific with the Tuskegee Airmen the previous year, but had been discharged as World War Two was drawing to a close. Before the war he’d had some success in a swing duo with bassist Slam Stewart, and he’d made his way to Los Angeles to resume his musical career. The city had seen great racial hostility and tension in the preceding years. The wartime internment of Japanese-Americans had cleared entire neighbourhoods, whilst the infamous ‘Sleepy Lagoon Murder’ trial and the subsequent ‘Zoot Suit riots’, saw Latino youths attacked both legally and physically by the city’s white establishment. This atmosphere of racialised suspicion certainly contributed the decision of LA radio station KMPC to ban ‘delinquent’ bebop music from its airwaves in 1946.  The radio controllers cited Slim Gaillard as one of the prime culprits, despite his music not really being representative of this new style of jazz.

It was against this backdrop that Gaillard established himself at Billy Berg’s, then one of the few jazz clubs in Hollywood with an integrated audience. Here he shared the bill with pianist Harry ‘the Hipster’ Gibson – the archetypal ‘white hipster’ – and with the two chiefs of the emerging bebop tendency in jazz, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Whilst not as musically innovative as those two, Gaillard was a highly-talented multi-instrumentalist. His counterpart in both club and recording studio in these years was bassist and scat-vocalese artist ‘Tiny’ Bam Brown. The pair’s frenzied yet focused dynamic is what makes their recordings from this time truly inimitable. It is also important to mention that at this time Gaillard was a regular feature on Jubilee, an American Air Force Radio Service (AFRS) programme, wich was broadcast out of Los Angeles and was largely targeted at African-American servicemen abroad . Its presenter was MC Ernie ‘Bubbles’ Whitman, AKA ‘the stomach that walked like a man’. These Jubilee recordings represent some of Gaillard’s finest live work – in particular his food songs.

Now you put a little horseradish on it and make it very mellow because it really knocks you right on out

‘Matzo Balls’, Jan 1946

Some of Gaillard’s songs, like ‘Matzo Balls’, ‘Drei Six Cents’ and ‘Dunkin’ Bagel’, devote themselves to the delights of Ashkenazi jewish cooking. A performance of the last is included in Slim’s 1947 featurette O’Voutie O’Rooney, featuring Bam Brown on bass and Scatman Crothers on the drums. An introductory intertitle proclaims: ‘To prove that the “Ovoutee Slanguage” is absolutely Kosher, Slim and his Orooney Dunkers swing – “Dunkin’ Bagel”.’ The lyrics in this filmed version go something like this:

Dunkin’ bagels

Dunkin’ bagels

Dunkin’ bagels

Splash! In the coffee 

[repeat]

Matzo balls! (Ah matzoballsaroonee!)

Gefilte fish! (Ah gefiltefishevoutee)

[unclear] (bopshamemamamamo)

Pickled herring! (Ah pickled herring! Macvoutee!)

And so on. Live recordings testify that this unlikely marriage of pseudo-bebop vocalese and dishes typical of a shabbat dinner went down a treat in clubs like Billy Berg’s. Gaillard and his musicians were very consciously playing to its crowd. Being located in Hollywood, a significant proportion of its audience would have been ‘hip’ white Jews, very familiar with food like gefilte fish (sweet or savoury poached fish-balls), matzo balls (a dumpling typically served in chicken soup), and pickled herring (typical Ashkenazi fare). The idea that such banal everyday dishes were being extolled like exotic delicacies was a concept too ludicrous not to laugh at. 

Part of the pleasure of these performances is that they simultaneously make light pokes at both ‘serious’ bebop music and the banalities of Jewish cuisine. In some ways, this hybrid approach reflects the ‘ethnic cross-dressing’ of the American Vaudeville tradition, in which much of the humour came from the audience laughing in some sense at themselves. 

It’d be inaccurate however, to suggest that Gaillard was contrasting two completely distant cultures. Whilst predominantly African-American, the jazz scene had long been populated by members of other groups, notably Jews, such that, as writers like Charles Hersch highlight, some phrases of Yiddish had been absorbed into the clandestine talk of its musicians. Whilst these cultural relationships were not without complication, for a musician who particularly excelled himself in jargon, it was a natural reference point. Back in 1938, with Slam Stewart, Gaillard had even recorded a rendition of the great Yiddish-jazz crossover hit, ‘Bei Mir Bistu Schein’, substituted with food-themed lyrics (e.g. bei mir bistu spaghetti). Of course, Gaillard also claimed Jewish heritage himself, though it’s hard to know how much he identified with it. Much of his exposure to Yiddish culture (and perhaps, cooking) may have come as a young man in prohibition-era Detroit, when he’d driven a hearse packed with booze for the Jewish-run ‘Purple Gang’.

In a live recording of another food-song of this period, ‘Yep Roc Heresay’, the opening lyrics go something like this:

Yaprak! Harisseh!

Kibbeh bi-siniyyeh, kibbeh ba’, lahm mishweh

Yaprak! Harrisseh!

Burghal (burgalshoo-whatisthemoot)

You could be forgiven for assuming that these alien-sounds were just another part of Gaillard’s crazy ‘Vout’ routine. From the assured cackles heard in the live recordings it seems that contemporary audience members certainly thought they were hip to what was going on. In fact, the song is basically just one long list of dishes from Levantine cooking, not unfamiliar on the menu of a Lebanese diner or the table of an Armenian household. Yaprak are stuffed vine-leaves, whereas harriseh can refer either to a slow-cooked lamb and bulgur stew or a semolina dessert. Kibbeh bi-sinneyeh is baked kibbeh (a dish of mincemeat, onion and bulgur), kibbeh ba’ probably refers to the same dish but with potatoes (batata), lahm mishweh is effectively shish kebab, and burghal is bulgur wheat. These are just some of the dishes cited in the various recordings of the song. 

Gaillard was playing a sort of practical joke on his self-assured hip audience, as well as on his bassist Bam, who sounds notably less confident with the Arabic names than Gaillard. In a kind of vocal juggling act, Slim tosses each dish over to Brown who must spin each into falsetto vocalese as they’re caught. The pleasure is that in the process, like in a House of Mirrors, each word becomes stretched and distorted – a cry of banadoura! (tomato) becoming manadomimimohohowoww

Once again, this song reflects Gaillard’s nomadic personal history. In his own version of his life, having been left in Crete, the teenage Slim remained for a short while in the region, working as a ship’s cook and travelling to Lebanon and Syria. This was probably where he first encountered Arabic and Greek (both of which he sang in), but also (perhaps more importantly) the kinds of regional delicacies that crop up in ‘Yep Roc Heresay’. Then, aged about 14, Slim claimed to have voyaged to Detroit, where he was taken in by an Armenian couple who ran a beauty parlour. Armenian cooking shares a lot of similarities with Middle Eastern Levantine cooking. Could it have been here, at the dinner table, that Gaillard first sampled yaprak? It is also very interesting to learn (by anecdote) that when in Los Angeles Gaillard was a frequent customer at Shikany’s Lebanese Restaurant, only about a 20 minute walk from Billy Berg’s club.

Whatever the reality of ‘Yep Roc Heresay’’s origins, the subject matter was evidently an evocative one for Slim. It’s not for nothing that he once introduced it as a love song. Importantly, the only non-culinary Arabic words that appear in the song are masari bahh, which translates roughly as ‘money’s gone!’ One can imagine that for a hungry teenager falling on the kindness of strangers, whether on the streets of Beirut or Detroit, this would have proved a useful phrase to know. 

The greatest Gaillard food-opus of this era, ‘The Avocado Seed Soup Symphony Pt 1, which was recorded live for AFRS’ Jubilee programme in December 1945, does not take an actual dish as its inspiration. Anyone who knows anything about avocados knows that the interesting part isn’t the pit (though these can apparently be consumed). The avocado seed soup is instead a joke-food, a title which lays the grounds for a kind of musical-cooking session. 

The soup’s base begins with fairly normal ingredients – a medley of two of Gaillard’s songs, ‘Buck Dance Rhythm’ and ‘Cement Mixer (Put-Ti-Put-Ti)’. It is during the latter melody however, that Gaillard’s frenzied dynamic with Bam Brown comes to a boil, and he begins to fling all sorts of monstrous things into the stew, calling each out as he does so. Avocado! cries Slim – ah-avocadahseedsouparootie! replies Bam, the fruit mutating in the vocalese broth. Jingle bell! jinglebell dingdong! Bam returns. A P38! is hurled in. This probably refers to either a ‘Lockheed P38 Lightning’ fighter-plane or a can opener issued to US armed forces – in any case, familiar objects to Jubilee’s military audience. Gaillard then launches into an explosion of faux-Spanish at break-neck speed, jarringly interspersed with American-English names and phrases – 5071 broadway, Mad Man Muntz, Duz does everything. Local listeners would have recognised this as an obvious imitation of the vocal patter of commercial breaks on local Chicano radio stations. Then, after a rendition of Duke Ellington’s ‘C Jam Blues’, the soup’s third cook, drummer Leo Watson, enters the mix. Watson’s segment is probably the most experimental performance of the recording, but he too includes in his vocalese fragments from popular culture, such as the song ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’. 

This wasn’t the first time Slim had evoked abstract or magical foods in his songs. In ‘Slim’s Jam’ (featuring Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, amongst others), he calls for a double order of reetie-vooties with a little hot sauce on it, that’ll just about fix it. In a monologue from a recording of ‘Gaillard Special’ (quoted at the beginning), Slim sets out his performance in the culinary terms of a surreal recipe. But before this recording his dishes had never taken on such strange dimensions and flavours. The soup is surely a distant cousin of the Duck Soup of fellow pop-surrealists, the Marx Brothers. Their 1933 movie took as its title a idiom common at the time. In the opening credits, this phrase was transformed into an absurd visual-joke – four live ducks swimming in a bubbling saucepan. This image in turn became a kind of symbol for the bouillabaisse of slapstick, wordplay and general anarchy that followed. Like Duck Soup, Gaillard’s symphony blends mimicry with frenzy – for which the murky confusion of the stew is the perfect metaphor. 

Perhaps describing this recording in this manner seems to distance it from the real-world conditions of post-war Los Angeles. However, just like Gaillard’s soup, the city was a melting pot into which all kinds of influences had been added, with results both fertile and at times very troubled. Whilst all of these recordings are ultimately playful in nature and do not directly comment on contemporary tensions, they are true products of their time and locality. It also might be worth mentioning as a side-note that the avocado is California’s state fruit.

Fancy a taster? Check out Sam’s playlist here.

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