History As Hard Drive

wheatchaffThe following statement might sound subjective (and maybe a little cranky) if it wasn’t coming from an established critic on a respected website:

The sad truth is that most tuba concertos are simply terrible and richly deserve their obscurity…

It might also sound funny, unless you’re Kalevi Aho, Paul McCorriston, John Williams (yes, that John Williams) or anyone who put time and effort into composing a tuba concerto. It might even seem harmless, if it wasn’t the type of evaluation that musical authorities use to dismiss whole genres, composers, eras and other categories of music. If it seems like another example of classical elitism, keep in mind that anyone reading Thomas Brothers’s new biography of Louis Armstrong will “learn” the following about prewar jazz:

Hot solos in the twenties often dissolve into aimless noodling, incoherent rhythm, or both.

The common assumption is not just that the writer is there to separate wheat from chaff, but that there is a lot of chaff out there, that it takes a definite form and that it needs to be isolated so that we can skip over it. History, both the one that’s happened and the one happening before us, begins to resemble a hard drive: limited space for just the important items while the rest can be deleted. If you’re not sure what’s important, well, just ask your local critic.

It’s difficult to question people who have experienced more music than I ever will in my entire life, many of whom have also studied it for most of theirs. Yet that knowledge and experience is exactly what makes their statements so surprising. Ideally, a lifetime with music would allow one to appreciate (if not necessarily enjoy) all music. Critics, musicologists, music historians and journalists and other authorities (ideally) have the ears and training to guide listeners through unfamiliar music, to peek into the supposedly mundane, strange and unattractive sounds and say more about the music, not reduce it to snappy copy. “The rest can be ignored” is very close to “it all sounds the same,” something one might expect to hear from a passive, occasional listener but not someone who has devoted their life to music. Maybe there is a price for expertise.

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Dixie Daisies And Enduring Ephemera

Heading straight into a song sans introduction is one idea that earned postwar jazz musicians their revolutionary credit, yet here it is on the Dixie Daisies’ “Papa Blues” of 1923:

Composer and piano roll powerhouse Max Kortlander may have originally written “Papa Blues” for his instrument of choice; the tune’s built-in chromatic breaks sound very pianistic. The Daisies’ clarinetist takes them on to provide an instantly recognizable hook at the outset of the recording as well as textural and comic relief. The ex nihilo gong is also pretty funny, and the novelty works as a segue into Kortlander’s second strain, here clothed in faux-Eastern robes.

papbluesNine decades of stylistic and cultural progress may make this section sound dated or even insensitive. From a strictly musical lens, the arrangement plays off a contrast between the down home major key and ragging trumpet of the first strain with the minor key exotica and nasal, almost-oboe like tone the trumpeter assumes in the second strain. The same goes for the succeeding chorus, which pits a straight saxophone lead against runaway double-time collective improvisation. The double-time sections are particularly ingenious: the trumpet and clarinet alter their tone as well as their rhythm so that the 78rpm record sounds like it’s being played on a 156rpm machine! The last chorus swaps the clarinet’s winding breaks for commentary from each of the players, offering further contrast as well as teasing at symmetry with the first chorus.

Dixie Daisies was one of the many aliases that record companies used for their studio bands, which could include now well-known names or players who remain anonymous. The Original Memphis Five often recorded under this pseudonym but this group doesn’t sound like the OM5 (who recorded the tune on multiple occasions in a very different arrangement.) This edition of the Daisies most likely included trumpeters Hymie Farberman and/or Jules Levy Jr. as well as trombonist Ephraim Hannaford, players in Joseph Samuels’s circle who got plenty of work but whose approach was based in one of American music’s vestigial limbs.  The Daisies happened to have waxed “Papa Blues” in April of 1923, the same year and month that King Oliver brought his Creole Jazz Band with young Louis Armstrong into the recording studio for the first time, setting the stage for a major shift in the sound of American music.  This music was made at nearly the same time as what many historians might consider the cause of its own obsolescence.

Whoever it was on the Cameo label’s “Papa Blues,” they were there to feed a dance-greedy public with records intended as disposable commercial products. Even an intricate chart like this one was all in a day’s work for them. Past those initial expectations and beyond temporal prejudices, there’s a smart piece of music at work here. Maybe it’s even smart enough to be “jazz.”

Columbians Dance Orchestra in 1921 with Farberman and Hannaford marked. Photo from Mark Berresford.

Columbians Dance Orchestra in 1921 with Farberman and Hannaford marked. Photo from Mark Berresford.

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Symposium On “Chimes Blues”

Here is Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo, in 1923:

Here is Gunther Schuller, describing Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo, in 1968:
[It] is a solo only in the sense that it takes place alone; it is not yet fully a solo in character and conception. It might easily have been one part of a collectively improvised chorus lifted from its background.

Here is Thomas Brothers, discussing Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo and apparently expanding upon Schuller’s point, in 2014:
“Where’s that lead?” Armstrong heard [mentor and boss King Oliver] say…and that admonition was still ringing in his ears when he soloed on “Chimes Blues”…

Here is Bob Wilber’s Wildcats, playing Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo, in 1947:

Here is the whole recording:

Things really pick up after that Armstrong homage, with the whole performance taking on newfound energy and cohesion. In other words, Armstrong’s “twenty-four bars of magic” work well as a lead. Yet Wilber, pianist Dick Wellstood and the other musicians knew that, didn’t they?  We are fortunate to have a variety of thinkers from a variety of perspectives, and eras, sharing their insights. Yet that band did beat those scholars to this musicological punch!

(Incidentally, “magic” is an inspired description: an incredible thing that can be analyzed and perhaps even demystified, or something that we can explain even as it continues to stupefy us.  Keep listening, and for goodness sake keep talking about what you hear.)

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Why Blog About Early Jazz (Flowchart)

A meandering thought from a coffee shop (not a bar) that turned into a helpful realization:
flowchart
Thank you for your indulgence, whoever is out there reading this post.

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Tweet-Ready Music Reviews Of The Postwar Era

“Panico made this record fifteen years ago? But I’m writing now!”
Billboard 1949Feb12 review of Panico
With terms like “relic, exhumed” and “corny” as well as the handy rating system, the only difference is sixty-five years (or maybe characters).

For a more nuanced i.e. lengthier portrait of Louis Panico (including several admiring comments by fellow musicians), read more here.

For what the fuss is about, check out Panico’s strong lead, clean breaks, keen sense of ensemble balance, smart use of mutes to vary his sound and understated but spurring variations on “Hula Lou” with Isham Jones’s band:

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The Anxiety And Influence: Post-Armstrong Cadenzas

A little over two weeks from now musicians, musicologists, scholars, historians, collectors, aficionados and fans will mark the eighty-sixth anniversary of a revolution in jazz and a landmark occurrence in American music. Some of them may even discuss the remaining three minutes and ten seconds of “West End Blues,” the part after Louis Armstrong’s introductory cadenza:

Armstrong plays masterfully throughout the record but generations (rightfully) continue to focus on his cadenza. Blazing fast, encompassing the trumpet’s entire range, technically dazzling, artfully constructed and as easy on the senses as the curves of a Botticelli bathing beauty, Armstrong could have easily played just this brief free-tempo improvisation and more than satisfied most listeners.

As for his fellow trumpeters, Armstrong’s cadenza must have invited another Italian phrase, namely agita. It’s not a musical term but it is a fair description of what some players no doubt experienced after first hearing “West End Blues.” Musicians are as much working professionals with their ears open for competition as they are sensitive artists seeking inspiration. It’s easy to imagine Armstrong’s contemporaries hearing “West End Blues” as the work of a genius, a tough act to follow and even something to top. Thankfully, many of them tried, several on record.

Brian Harker describes Jabbo Smith as “the only trumpet player, according to many contemporaries, who posed a threat to Armstrong’s supremacy,” a threat that Rex Stewart described as truly “blowing.” Gunther Schuller points out that Smith “evidently worshipped Armstrong [and] imitated many of the latter’s most famous solos (particularly ‘West End Blues’).” Thomas Brothers cites Smith’s recording of “Take Me To The River” as “a response to Armstrong’s celebrated performance”:

Smith’s blistering edge and intense delivery are far removed from the melodicism Armstrong maintained even in his rapid-fire excursions. That’s a statement of musical priorities rather than an evaluation (though melody often keeps listeners coming back for more, which may explain Armstrong’s longevity). Smith’s Rhythm Aces were actually the Brunswick label’s attempt to compete with Armstrong’s Hot Fives on Okeh. Not one for understatement or easing into a task, Smith picked “Jazz Battle” as the first song at his first session as a leader and started it off with an ornamental call to arms:

Smith’s introduction is less of a cadenza and more an instrumental break before the tune or the band even starts up. Armstrong is majestic while Smith is defiant; Armstrong pulls the audience in but Smith dares them not to blink. Equally telling is how instead of easing into a relaxed air, Smith bursts into a racehorse display. He may have “worshipped” Armstrong but doesn’t sound like he’s ready to serve in heaven.

Reuben Reeves also admired Armstrong even as he sought to knock him down a few pegs. Reeves’s high note displays had impressed Chicago audiences, and bandleader/promoter/journalist Dave Peyton had advocated for Reeves as a classically schooled, more respectable alternative to Armstrong. By the time that Vocalion set up Reuben “River” Reeves and His River Boys a.k.a. the Hollywood Shufflers as another competitor to the Hot Fives, Armstrong and Reeves had faced off against one another at the Regal Theater a month earlier in late April, 1929.

That particular jazz battle did not end well for Reeves. Despite a showy piece arranged by Peyton to show off Reeves, Armstrong excelled in terms of musicality, stamina, technique and roaring crowds. Reeves’s defeat may explain the lack of overt references on his own dates to Armstrong’s by now well-known record. The closest thing to an Armstrongian cadenza is the mid-register, in-tempo introduction to “Blue Sweets,” which is as pastoral as Armstrong’s is urbane:

Reeves does seem to hint at and perhaps parody “West End Blues” with searing sustained high notes on “River Blues” that resemble Armstrong’s final chorus (and follow an Earl Hines-esque piano solo by Jimmy Prince):

Reeves’s upper register is steelier and more penetrating than Armstrong’s, and the answers from Omer Simeon’s clarinet are either the trumpeter’s attempt to avoid outright plagiarism or splitting his lip. Decades later it’s easy to dismiss Reeves with the knowledge that Armstrong was far more than a squeaker. Harker writes that Reeves seemed to absorb the letter but not the spirit of Armstrong’s style. That might imply a shortcoming, but “spirit” is as personal as it is important. Maybe Reeves, like Smith, was content to use Armstrong’s letters to express his own soul.

Louis Metcalf might seem to imitate Armstrong in his note-for-note rendition of “West End Blues” with the King Oliver band. Yet his departures from the original, whether deliberately subtle or entirely unintentional, make it a wholly individual statement:

The bluesy run connecting the third and fourth notes of the opening arpeggio, hesitations such as the split-second too long pause before the shaky high note or even potential clams like the slight stutters on the opening chorus all act like little signatures by Metcalf. It’s a sincere form of flattery as well as bravery: who else was willing to not just attempt this solo but to record it with none other than the inspiration for the source leading the band?

Red Allen, leading his New York Orchestra on Victor, falls between imitation and complete rejection of Armstrong’s lessons. Just a few years younger than Armstrong and a fellow New Orleanian, according to Ted Gioia Allen actually absorbed most of Armstrong’s playing through records. For his first session as a leader (and second-ever experience in a recording studio), he begins “It Should Be You” with a cadenza that does his hero proud without trying to clone him:

Speaking of this session in his solography of Allen, Jan Evensmo notes how Allen had “already found his [own] style, an open pure sound, a sparkling technique, a fantastic inventiveness, a unique sense of harmony and a rhythmic sureness…” At the same time Allen obviously loved Armstrong’s easygoing yet confident swing, declaratory phrasing and glissandi. Like Armstrong, he also seems to believe in not fixing what isn’t broke: that cadenza remains the same throughout all three takes of “It Should Be You.”

For trumpeters from the pre-Armstrong era or who were less obviously influenced by him, simply the idea of an introductory cadenza allowed them to channel their own gifts. Bill Moore’s chattering lines and tightly muted sound weave a slick, pithy epigram before the Ben Bernie band takes over on “I Want To Be Bad”:

James “King” Porter tacks a miniature cadenza onto to his lush introduction to “Between You And Me” with Curtis Mosby and His Dixieland Blue Blowers:

While on “Buffalo Rhythm” by Walter Barnes’s Royal Creolians, Cicero Thomas rushes through his introduction like a trumpeter at a bullfight with a bus to catch:

Armstrong himself would of course return to the device on record and throughout his career. His introductory cadenza on “Blue Again” is a personal favorite of this blogger:

Its poise, its subtle mixture of drama and detachment and the casual, humorous way that Armstrong “muffs” the reference to his own cadenza from “West End Blues” show that even Armstrong could look to Armstrong as a springboard to something different.

Armstrong himself was initially inspired by the tradition of concert soloists in European music and American marches. He didn’t play the first cadenza at the start of a piece or a record but it likely seemed that way for many trumpeters. All of “West End Blues” is a marvel but its elevation of a single musical device within the jazz community is equally impressive.

With the exception of the Reeves sides (July and May of 1929) and “Blue Again” (1931) all of these records were made just seven or eight months after Armstrong cut “West End Blues.” Allowing for time between Armstrong recording and Okeh distributing it, “West End Blues” must have been fresh enough to convince trumpeters, and record executives, that they needed a flashy cadenza. Eleven seconds generated enough creative curiosity, professional jealousy and/or commercial trendiness to inspire several individual contrafacts, and of course there are more out there and to come. That really is an amazing introduction.

CareOFbjazzDOTunblogDOTfr

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Colin Hancock’s One-Man Creole Jazz Band

The following is the first I have ever heard of Colin Hancock, but what an introduction:

Mr. Hancock plays all of the instruments and Mr. Jorni Budich made this (beautiful) acoustic transfer of the music. The result is impressive and (for this listener) at times a little eery, like looking just a little too long at a wax sculpture of a good friend.

Having said that, I hope they both continue to make these recordings and post them on YouTube. Their work lets us consider both this style and this recording technology as more than just a historical compromise.

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Baby’s First Hot Jazz Book

Jazz_Baby

Even as a younger generation of hot jazz lovers begins to spread the gospel of Rust, it never hurts to seed the ground for the future. Here’s a kid-friendly educational resource to start their children on the right path:

A is for Louis Armstrong, who taught jazz to sing,

louis armstrong

 

B is for Bix Beiderbecke, who brought a softer side to swing.

Bix Beiderbecke and his Rhythm Jugglers, 1925, from left to right: Howdy Quicksell (banjo), Tom Gargano (drums), Paul Mertz (piano), Don Murray (clarinet), Bix Beiderbecke (cornet), and Tommy Dorsey (trombone).

C is for Bill Challis, who wrote great charts though history books often leave him out,

BillChallis1936

D is for Don Redman, an arranger even Ken Burns talks about!

DonRedmanOrchCareOfRedHotJazzDotCom

E is for Ellington, a serious composer who made people dance,

Big_Band_Awards_For_Bob_Crosby_Glen_Gray_and_Duke_Ellington

F is for Fletcher Henderson: name a great soloist and he probably gave them their first chance!

http://www.browsebiography.com/bio-fletcher_henderson.html

G is for Goldkette, he had great sidemen but never gets his due,

GoldketteCareOfAlHaimNetwork54DotCom

H is for Coleman Hawkins, the father of jazz saxophone and a tough cookie (though his early sides he clearly did rue).

Coleman+Hawkins+++The+Hawk+Flie

I is for “I Never Miss The Sunshine,” Frank’s Trumbauer’s amazing premier,

Left to right: Ray Thurston, Marty Livingston, Pee Wee Russell, Frankie Trumbauer, Dee Orr, Bix Beiderbecke, Bud Hassler, Louis Feldman, Dan Gaebe, Wayne Jacobson.

Left to right: Ray Thurston, Marty Livingston, Pee Wee Russell, Frankie Trumbauer, Dee Orr, Bix Beiderbecke, Bud Hassler, Louis Feldman, Dan Gaebe, Wayne Jacobson.

J is for Jack Pettis, who wasn’t a “father” but whose originality was clear.

JackPettisPosterCareOfBixographyDotCom

K is for King Oliver, who taught young Satch but also had his own great style,

KOCJB

L is for Eddie Lang, who also shaped the music, even if he only stayed a little while.

EddieLangCareOfNostalgicDashRadioDotCom

M is for Miff Mole, trombone original with a name that’s silly,

MiffMoleRedNicholsCareOfMichaelSteinman

N is for Red Nichols, his partner, another original whose playing was far from just frilly.

Red Nichols Photo care of Stephen Hester

Red Nichols Photo care of Stephen Hester

O is for Kid Ory and his bluesy, big slip horn,

ory

P is for poor Ben Pollack, who gave Teagarden, Miller, and Goodman a break and even led the Bob Crosby band before it was born!

pollackband1929careofredhotjazzdotcom

Q is for QRS, a label featuring Jelly, Fats, James P. Johnson, Clarence and Fatha’ Hines,

QRSCareOfOld78sDotCom

R is for respect to all of them plus Willie Smith and other piano lions.

jess

S is for Mamie, Bessie, Clara and other Smiths of the blues,

MamieSmithJazzHoundsCareOfRedhotjazzDotCom

T is territory bands, whose music is still making news.

library-umkc-edu

U is for underdog, because that’s how this music got its start,

Groupies

Groupies

V is for “Variety Stomp” for no other reason than the tune is close to this writer’s heart.

W is for the first record you like, which will change everything.

X is for that favorite record, to be discovered by you and admired because it will make you sing!

“Y” is a good question, but not every day…

because Z is for “zing”: if the music makes you say that, what else is left to say?

A Touch of Contemporaneity

Guns N’ Roses isn’t the first thing I pick off the virtual shelf but here is a wonderful exception:

Scott Bradlee has an entire YouTube channel featuring his covers of contemporary pop songs dressed in vintage musical fashions. Far from aiming for kitsch value, Bradlee tries to “examine contemporary pop with an open mind” and has found that “by simply altering the context of such songs, [he] could find quite a bit of artistic merit” in them.

Often surprising, always energetic and without a drop of pretense, Bradlee’s music is a good reminder that (to paraphrase the pianist and arranger) these styles were heard in nightclubs and juke joints before they made it to concert halls and civic centers.

It’s also a lot of fun. Lighten up, won’t us?

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