Celluloid Improvisations logo Jazz on Film Mark Cantor

Cleanhead Vinson “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”

One of our other featured clips spotlights bluesman John Lee Hooker. Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson was one of Hooker’s contemporaries — they were born within four months of each other in 1917 — but unlike Hooker, Vinson approached the blues from a jazz perspective. He had worked with various territory bands in the 193Os, but it wasn’t until a move to New York in 1942, where he joined Cootie Williams and his Orchestra, that Cleanhead became known to the jazz world.

Cleanhead, so named because of his shaved head, was with the Cootie Williams orchestra for four years, and was featured on alto saxophone, and as one of the band’s vocalists. Vinson had been raised in Houston, and his music always reflected the blues heritage of Kansas City, Texas and American Southwest. I saw him often in Los Angeles toward the end of his career, and his music never lost its blues feel, along with its easy-going, yet intense, swing.

In 1943, Vinson was featured in a short subject made for Columbia Pictures titled Film Vodvil. Mercer Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” is usually presented as an instrumental, but lyrics have been added here, quite possibly put together by Vinson himself.

Some time ago I wrote an article on the short, perhaps more information than anyone wants or needs. But just in case this is the type of film that interests you, the article can be found on this website, under “1st chorus,” then “short subjects,” last “Cootie Williams and his Orchestra.” But the music speaks for itself, and this performance is a particular favorite of mine.

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