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Tracks Unwrapped

Flight Of The Foo Birds



A man went to Africa to do some game hunting. While there, he hired a young native to accompany him as his guide. Soon, a large flock of birds flew overhead and the hunter took aim. The guide grabbed his arm and said “Oh, no! Those are foo birds and to shoot one means terrible things will happen to you!” The man decided that this was just a superstition, ignored the warning, and shot one down.

A moment or two later, the rest of the flock returned and pooped all over him. He yelled at the guide: “Please get me some water to wash this mess off”. The boy said “Oh no! To wash the crap of the foo bird off means sudden death immediately!” Again the hunter ignored the warning, found water and got cleaned off. Sure enough he dropped dead then and there. The moral of this story is “If the foo shits, wear it. ”



Which has nothing, or everything, to do with Neal Hefti’s composition that flew out of the Atomic Mr Basie album. Here is a video of the Basie band playing Flight Of the Foo Birds in 1965.



The Complete Atomic Mr Basie



Although it is great to see the band in action, I do wonder if this is a true recording of the tempo if you compare it with the original recording - click here.





Smokey Stover

There are various debates about where the idea of Foo Birds came from – it is quite possible, of course, that Neal Hefti just liked thewords.

One suggestion is that the term comes from the word ‘foo’ that emerged in the early 1930s, first used by cartoonist Bill Holman in hisSmokey Stover (The Foo Fighter) cartoon strips which were run daily in the Chicago Tribune. Smokey Stover's catch phrase was "where there's foo, there's fire". Smokey wears bright red (or yellow) rubber boots and a clownish striped "helmet" (always worn back-to-front), which he sometimes ties to his nose with string, in lieu of a chinstrap. His trademark helmet also features a prominent hole in its hinged brim, which he occasionally uses as an ashtray for his lit cigar.

Although most of the sequences in the strip (and the occasional comic book) centre on Smokey's escapades with the Chief, the loose "plots" and situations are mainly a framework to display an endless parade of off-the-wall verbal and visual humor. Smokey rides ‘an impossible two-wheeled “Foomobile” (a single-axle fire engine which resembles a modern Segway with seats, or an independent sidecar).’

A novelty song based on Smokey Stover - 'What This Country Needs Is Foo', with words and "FOOsic" by Mack Kay, was recorded by Eddie DeLange and His Orchestra on Bluebird Records in 1939. Holman illustrated the cover for the sheet music. If you must, youcan listen to the recording with Elisse Cooper taking the vocal.






Other suggestions of derivation are a Foo Fighter - a WWII term for a class of unidentified flying objects seen from warplanes over both European and Pacific areas at the time. I see that the rock band Foo Fighters headlined at Glastonbury in 2015.

The words ‘Foo’ and ‘Bar’ are also apparently used by computer programmers who get them from ‘FUBAR’ -' f**ked up beyond all recognition'. A computer programmer might understand "Foo Bird" to mean - "any kind of bird you might think of will do here"...The acronym ‘FUBAR’ has been around in the military since at least 1944 - perhaps Hefti originally wrote it as "Flight of the FUBAR" but cleaned it up to put it on the record sleeve? – but that is pretty unlikely.

Woody Allen used the Count Basie recording in his classic 1977 film Annie Hall. If you have never seen the film or would like a reminder, check out this video compilation of some of the scenes.




Over the years Flight Of The Foo Birds has become a popular tune, particularly in the repertoire of young big bands. Apart from its heritage, the tune, taken at a variety of tempos, offers a good opportunity for ensemble playing and for solos.


Here is the Bath Spa Big Band Society playing the number in 2014 with a nice, short saxophone solo along the way





Our second stop is the Sant Andreu Jazz Band from Barcelona whose conductor looks frighteningly like J K Simmonds character, Fletcher, in the movie Whiplash. This is a very capable young band with a short alto saxophone solo near the beginning that I enjoyed.






I have to say that I am surprised that there is not more impressive video footage online from other bands performing the number.

Neal Hefti



Flight Of The Foo Birds is one of those memorable numbers that has carved out its place in the jazz story and deserves repeated visiting. It makes us remember just how much music Neal Hefti contributed in all his writing from the Batman Theme and Barefoot In The Park to the enduring Li'l Darlin' and Splanky. Thank you Neal.





More Tracks Unwrapped:

Lover Man
Fables Of Faubus
Jeeps Blues
Milneburg Joys

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