The New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Off The Record And About Time!

NORKGod knows I’ve wished they would do it, wondered why they hadn’t done it yet and widened my eyes every time I heard they were ready to do it. Those rumors have at last coalesced into a near-certainty, and it turns out good things merely take time (and money).

Off The Record is now fundraising to produce The New Orleans Rhythm Kings: Complete Recordings, 1922-25. The NORK will finally receive the same treatment Off The Record gifted on similar sets for King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, Bix Beiderbecke’s Wolverines and company’s Cabaret Echoes collection. Doug Benson’s masterful audio restoration and David Sager’s loving yet illuminating liner notes are a natural fit for this seminal, rollicking jazz band, (in this writer’s opinion) the white, Chicago-born analog of Oliver’s ensemble. You can donate here to help make it happen.

Yet chances are that most of the people reading this blog already knew all of that. So why, if you have only a passing interest in twenties jazz or have never even heard of the NORK, should you support this project?

Don Murray. Photo courtesy of Storyville magazine.

Finally, An Opportunity To Pick Out What Don Murray Was Playing On These Sessions.

For starters, there’s the combination of joyful music presented in sterling sound and wrapped in historical/musical context that breathes like a smart, friendly explanation rather than a lecture. Anyone can enjoy and learn a lot from Off The Record. You also support an enterprise that is all about the music, what collector and writer Mark Berresford called the “to hell with the sales figures, let’s get people listening to this material!” mantra. Great music in a superior format produced by sincere, knowledgeable people: I don’t usually solicit for money on this blog but I’m happy to make an exception this time.

Plus, I really want to get this set produced and into my stereo. So do it for some faceless blogger.

Here is that link, again. Thanks so much!

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Chauncey’s Choices: Jazz Drumming Before The Ride Cymbal

If you can excuse Chauncey Morehouse’s less than subtle bias and treat his examples as pedagogical conveniences rather than stylistic axioms, his mini survey of jazz drumming might prove insightful, even encouraging:

courtesy of the late Walt Gifford via Michael Steinman

Courtesy of Walt Gifford via the late Joe Boughton through Michael Steinman. Date and periodical unknown but estimated to be from DownBeat circa mid-forties.

There is more room for spontaneity or “feel” in loose small group settings than in “concerted” big bands, or over-rehearsed combos for that matter. Yet the interaction between the drummer and the band in “Dixieland” (what was it like to hear that word as five letters rather than four?) is also a matter of content as well as degree.

Morehouse helped pioneer (on record, anyway) a syncopated style of drumming where drummers punctuate the beat as much as they lay it down, though not necessarily ride it a la Jo Jones or for that matter Art Blakey or Roy Haynes. Dixieland drumming stomps before it swings. As Tom Everett once described, it’s the difference between telling dancers where to put their feet down versus suggesting when to pick up their legs.

Morehouse obviously knew which style he preferred and his comments seem tailored to tick off the mussic generalization copps. Yet decades later and after hundreds of textbook pages making it sound as though bop invented the concept of the drummer as more than a flesh metronome, it’s good to hear someone advocate for this style rather than merely remember it.

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Concerto for Clarinet and Dance Orchestra

Buster Bailey ended his long tenure with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra two years earlier yet plays with the fire of a young freelancer on “Some Of These Days” with Dave Nelson and The King’s Men. Just listen here for Clive Heath’s beautiful restoration of this very rare record.

Bailey shapes a swinging yet otherwise straightforward arrangement with a virtual catalog of obbligatos: tongue-in-cheek seesaw patterns alongside the saxes on the first chorus, low register, low volume counterpoint under Nelson’s vocal and wails behind the full band for the finale. Aside from the leader, Bailey is also the only soloist to get an entire chorus to himself; precious real estate on a three-minute 78!

DaveNelson78As Scott Yanow put it, Bailey had a “wicked” sense of humor and sounded as though he were trying to rip his instrument a part. He may not have been as warm as Johnny Dodds or Benny Goodman or as instantly recognizable as Sidney Bechet or William Thornton Blue. Yet Bailey’s sleek, cutting tone is well suited to his rapid-fire improvisations. A classically trained musician with a monster technique, whose colleagues insisted he could have played for a symphony if he were white, Bailey just may have had something to prove. He may have also merely delighted in the scales, arpeggios, intervals and runs that form the foundation of a solid clarinet technique, the same way an expert watchmaker appreciates finely crafted cogs and springs or a painter appreciates the brushstrokes as much as the images of a portrait. The term “technician,” often applied to Bailey, doesn’t necessarily require “cold” before it.

Following Bailey’s solo, the leader’s trumpet provides a cool contrast to Bailey’s heat, alto saxist Glyn Paque and pianist Sam Allen split a chorus and then a brief clam by one of the tenor saxophones provides another bit of timbral contrast. From there, Bailey continues to accompany and energize the band before all at once before reaffirming why the last chorus is often called a “shout chorus.”

He dominates four of this side’s six choruses, something hard to imagine earlier on in Henderson’s star-studded orchestra or later on in John Kirby’s tightly arranged sextet. Assorted pickup dates of the early thirties with Nelson, Noble Sissle, Bubber Miley, Mills Blue Rhythm Band and others are great opportunities to hear Bailey stretch out. Never expecting him to be an innovator or even an artist, Bailey’s various bosses knew he had plenty to offer. No “sideman” ever did the term prouder.

Buster Bailey (left) and Red Allen

Buster Bailey (left) and Red Allen

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Don Murray, Baritenor Sax *REVISED*

So much for discographies! Here is a revision of an earlier post that accounts for some additional information.
-Your humble (occasionally to the point of error) blogger

JeanGoldketteBand1925CareOfBixBeiderbeckeDotComDon Murray’s solo on “Blue River” with Jean Goldkette’s band came as a complete surprise. It wasn’t just being used to hearing him on baritone sax with Goldkette and on tenor with Ted Lewis, along with his clarinet in both settings. That would have just made my hearing a tenor sax spot for Murray with Goldkette a novelty.

The sound of this Murray tenor, so rich, so plummy, so far removed from the piping, reedy solos in the instrument’s upper-medium to high registers with Lewis was the real surprise. The first (through about fifth or sixth) time I heard it, it left me scratching my head.  Yet it is in fact a tenor saxophone.

Small wonder since Murray was not even playing tenor sax. Blame my car speakers or blame Murray’s light, transparent as cheesecloth tone on baritone (and thank Albert Haim for educating me):

So many baritone players of this stylistic era played the big horn with a big, burly tone, thick vibrato and percussive articulation. Compare Bobby Davis, Harry Carney, Jimmy Dorsey, crunching Stump Evans, massive Cecil Scott (on “Harlem Shuffle“), Joe Walker, or bass-sax like Jack Washington with Murray, and the difference becomes clear to the point of world-altering.

Links with Murray’s frequent collaborator Frank Trumbauer are tempting. Yet the C melody saxist’s light timbre dovetails with a light, relaxed approach to improvisation. “Tram” often seems to ease into his lines, even at breakneck tempos. Murray’s approach was rarely easygoing. Even on “Blue River,” his wafer dark tone spirals into a rapid-fire kineticism. If Frank Trumabuer looks ahead to the cooler sounds of Lester Young And Miles Davis, Murray is firmly, and in hindsight refreshingly, part of The Jazz Age’s nervous energy.

Murray doesn’t cut “Blue River” to ribbons, yet well past paraphrasing it, he turns Joseph Meyer & Alfred Bryan’s repeated note theme into a busy, bouncing ballet of arpeggios, intervals, runs and an ecstatic in-tempo break after the ensemble bridge. His solo is halfway between complete abstraction and the type of recomposition Bix Beiderbecke (here buried in the section) was known for.

Decades of hearing Trumbauer’s own recording of “Blue River,” with Murray in the background and Bix Beiderbecke forever in the foreground, have made it all too familiar to generations of jazz listeners. Murray’s variation resembles cutting lines from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead into acts of Hamlet. Goldkette’s arrangement may or may not be as hip as Trumbauer’s but for twenty-four bars Murray makes the tune an event. As for my own naive guesses initial impressions of Murray’s choice of instrument, I now know better but see the value in trusting one’s “gut” even as I continue to learn more about this often overlooked player. That’s a jazz musician for you.DonMurrayInParis1928CroppedFromMarkBerresfordPhotoViaBixographyWebsite

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Non Significa Nulla Se No Swing

This post began as an internal housekeeping project, but for practical as well as promotional purposes I decided to share my reviews for Early Music America online.  I have had the privilege of listening to and writing about a wide variety of music for this informative, lovingly edited magazine.  Not all of these recordings are the type of eighteenth century swing I typically cover on this blog but each of them is worth a listen. After all, if you haven’t heard it yet, that makes it new music.

Please pause, fast-forward or zoom in on the slideshow as needed, and enjoy!

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Don Murray, Baritenor Saxophone

JeanGoldketteBand1925CareOfBixBeiderbeckeDotComDon Murray’s solo on “Blue River” with Jean Goldkette’s band came as a complete surprise. It wasn’t just being used to hearing him on baritone sax with Goldkette and on tenor with Ted Lewis, along with his clarinet in both settings. That would have just made my hearing a tenor sax spot for Murray with Goldkette a novelty.

The sound of this Murray tenor, so rich, so plummy, so far removed from the piping, reedy solos in the instrument’s upper-medium to high registers with Lewis was the real surprise. The first (through about fifth or sixth) time I heard it, it left me scratching my head.

Small wonder since Murray was not even playing tenor sax. Blame my car speakers or blame Murray’s light, transparent as cheesecloth tone on baritone (and thank Albert Haim for educating me):

So many baritone players of this stylistic era played the big horn with a big, burly tone, thick vibrato and percussive articulation. Compare Bobby Davis:

Harry Carney:

Jimmy Dorsey:

crunching Stump Evans:

massive Cecil Scott (on “Harlem Shuffle“):


Joe Walker:

bass-sax like Jack Washington:

with Murray:

and the difference becomes clear to the point of world-altering.

Links with Murray’s frequent collaborator Frank Trumbauer are tempting. Yet the C melody saxist’s light timbre dovetails with a light, relaxed approach to improvisation. “Tram” often seems to ease into his lines, even at breakneck tempos. Murray’s approach was rarely easygoing. Even on “Blue River,” his wafer tone spirals into a rapid-fire kineticism. If Trumabuer looks ahead to the cooler sounds of Lester Young And Miles Davis, Murray is firmly, and in hindsight refreshingly, part of The Jazz Age’s nervous energy.

Murray doesn’t cut “Blue River” to ribbons, yet well past paraphrasing it, he turns Joseph Meyer & Alfred Bryan’s repeated note theme into a busy, bouncing ballet of arpeggios, intervals, runs and an ecstatic in-tempo break after the ensemble bridge. His solo is halfway between complete abstraction and the type of recomposition Bix Beiderbecke (here buried in the section) was known for.

Decades of hearing Trumbauer’s own recording of “Blue River,” with Murray in the background and Bix Beiderbecke forever in the foreground, have made it all too familiar to generations of jazz listeners. Murray’s variation resembles cutting lines from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead into acts of Hamlet. Goldkette’s arrangement may or may not be as hip as Trumbauer’s but for twenty-four bars Murray makes the tune an event. As for my own naive guesses at Murray’s choice of instrument, I now know better but continue to learn more about this often overlooked player. That’s a jazz musician for you.DonMurrayInParis1928CroppedFromMarkBerresfordPhotoViaBixographyWebsite

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Of Lines And Runs

Instrumental virtuosity, expressiveness, interaction between a soloist or an ensemble and a rhythmic/harmonic support system, a steady, driving beat and musical lines snapping into play? Zippy gets it…

Zippy

If he had a music blog, I would be nothing more than a copycat.

Thanks to Michael Steinman for sharing the comic strip from which I found this piece of wisdom. Now “dig” some Telemann…

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Don Murray Meets The Rhythm Section

DON MURRAY HAD LOTS OF SAX

Joe Venuti led several numbers in the studio but Richard Sudhalter singled out the violinist’s Blue Four sessions of the late twenties as “masterpieces, high points of New York chamber jazz ….a testament of excellence hard even to challenge, let alone surpass.” For me they stand out as ideal opportunities to hear Don Murray.

Jimmy Dorsey, Frank Trumbauer and Adrian Rollini joined Venuti, his right-hand man Eddie Lang on guitar and a revolving roster of pianists during this period (Justin Ring or Paul Grasselli also played percussion but their presence was slight enough for even the record label to classify this group as a quartet). Murray easily has the smallest recorded legacy of the Blue Four’s guest reeds, a consequence of his also having the shortest life.

Combined with the fact that Murray was usually buried in larger bands for most of his discography, these Blue Four sides become not just a boon for Murray fans but a valuable document of an under-recorded, apparently multifaceted musician. From his debut with the Blue Four, playing baritone saxophone and clarinet on “Penn Beach Blues,” he acts as soloist, reed section, bassist, color and contrast:

Moody and atmospheric, “Penn Beach Blues” alternates a harmonically arresting ensemble and a laidback blowing chorus. Murray adds a distinct sound from the outset, bottoming out the ensemble chords and adding ascending chromatic lines to connect them. His bright clarinet tone is instantly recognizable. So are the stacked arpeggios and loping eighth notes that characterized his playing regardless of instrument. He provides bass lines and syncopated rumbles for most of the reverse side but also earns two solo spots amidst this feature for the leader’s violin:

Murray’s first solo on “Four String Joe,” starts off uneasily, with a descending line that gains confidence and races towards a hot break and roaring finale. His clarinet is unusually and refreshingly spare, adding an attractive popping effect when it locks in with the rhythm section’s backbeat. Murray comes back on baritone for some moaning dialog with Venuti before switching back to clarinet and a unison tag with him, closing the performance with yet another unique sound.

The Blue Four’s variety of texture, form and mood belies any sense of there being “just” four players. They rarely rely upon the soloist plus rhythm, take-your-turn-improvising format. Instead, violin lead with guitar comping, guitar lead with violin harmony, guitar bass lines supporting soloist or ensemble, a capella piano, various combinations of call and response and other instrumental changeups make the quartet sound larger in terms of size as well as possibility. Apparently Okeh agreed: Venuti kept making Blue Four sides, even as jazz and dance bands had already started to grow much larger.

Venuti’s next session as a leader was another Blue Four date, with Murray back in the reed chair and Rube Bloom (in place of pianist Frank Signorelli) introducing a medium tempo “Dinah”:

Geoffrey Wheeler describes Murray’s baritone sax sound as a “medium-full, vibratoless sound that would have fit in well with the bop groups and big bands of the 1940s.” “Dinah” is a short but very revealing exploration of that sound. Murray’s tender introduction and verse, first solo then pared with Venuti’s double-stops, and his ability to accompany a small group of soft instruments without overwhelming them displays his versatility as well as his expressiveness. Murray could play hot but could also play, period.

Even on the second tune of the day, a breakneck feature for Venuti appropriately titled “The Wild Dog,” Murray makes an elegant (dare we say “Bixian?”) statement in halftime, built off of arching phrases, a bluesy break and light articulation. The record also begins with Murray arpeggiating the tense harmonies of the introduction, an instant touch of atmosphere:

Given that Murray was playing the first recording of this tune, his repeated note solo might have been a paraphrase of a melody co-written by Lang and Venuti. It’s easy to imagine Lang plucking something similar on his guitar. Yet the unissued take features a different solo using similar ideas, and a later record with Pete Pumiglio taking Murray’s place has an entirely different chorus. Murray may have been crafting just the right solo, as so many jazz musicians of the time also did to great effect. Either way, it’s a lyrical, well-conceived moment amidst Venuti’s virtuoso displays.

After two sessions leading big bands (both including Murray) and close to three months later, Venuti once again recorded with a Blue Four and brought Murray back for what would be his last appearance with the group. On baritone again for a fiery “The Man From The South,” he gets in a whirlwind of a solo, driving and dense, like a Bach invention soaked in gin, yet it’s his ensemble playing that nearly steals the show:

Murray’s darting phrases behind and between Venuti/Lang’s lead throughout the recording indicate how closely he may have been listening to bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini. Murray toys with the boundary between obbligato and bass lines in the same way that Rollini did when both played on the legendary Bix Beiderbecke and His Gang sessions. Murray makes the Blue Four sound fuller while adding momentum to it, splitting the difference between front line and rhythm section. The alternation between staccato and slurred phrases in the first chorus also shows Murray’s slick sense of detail.

Murray closes out his brilliant tenure with the Blue Four on “Pretty Trix” and two solos that resemble his work on “Four String Joe,” full of bright second and thirds and finger-twisting runs:

Don Murray. Photo courtesy of Storyville magazine.

Don Murray. Photo courtesy of Storyville magazine.

His tone on the head’s ensemble counterpoint is light, nearly to the point of transparency, very different from the dark, cavernous sound of his baritone and bass sax-playing contemporaries. It lets Venuti’s passagework and Lang’s plucking peek through, allowing exactly the type of a “finely wrought musical miniatures, harmonically and texturally rich…yet [leaving] plenty of latitude for improvisation” praised by Sudhalter. New York had its share of excellent reed players, some at least as busy as Murray, but Venuti and Murray had known one another since their time in Jean Goldkette’s orchestra, if not earlier. Venuti was probably not one to mince words and no doubt knew what he wanted. Murray in turn must have found the time to join him.

Less than a month after his last session with the Blue Four, Murray had started as a regular player with Ted Lewis, a job that would keep him incredibly busy and take him on the road to California, where he suffered the fatal accident that would kill him less than a year later. It’s hard to hear Murray in the many reed sections he recorded with during his short but teasingly fruitful career and it never seems like he got enough solos. These Blue Four sessions, just six sides and one alternate take, are a small but incredibly revealing part of the Murray discography.

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Kuhn’s History Of Jazz

kuhncoverThomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions suggests that natural science operates according to, and periodically discards, paradigms unique to a historical and material setting. For Kuhn, the information contained in a chemistry textbook doesn’t represent the objective accretion of truth but is a work of its time, as much determined by external contingencies and human “idiosyncrasies” as it is by research and experimentation. In other words science is constructed, not necessarily discovered and definitely not already out there waiting to be revealed by scientists.

This complex (even when stripped down to three sentences by a sub-amateur) claim may sound like an odd fit for empirical investigation but might be useful for artistic ones. Kuhn’s idea of a “paradigm,” the “models from which spring particular coherent traditions,” is already standard in a variety of disciplines. When Scott DeVeaux, in “Constructing The Jazz Tradition,” asserts “from textbook to textbook, there is a substantive agreement on the defining features of each style, pantheon of great innovators and canon of recorded masterpieces,” he is essentially describing a paradigm. The way that DeVeaux and other jazz scholars such as Kenneth E. Prouty discuss The Smithsonian Collection Of Jazz, it may be the first downloadable paradigm.

The word “music” appears only once in Kuhn’s essay and he doesn’t even mention “jazz.” “Science” is of course used many times but “history” is mentioned nearly as often. If Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn can shed some light on the current state of jazz, then perhaps Kuhn can illuminate its past.

Contents
1. The Structure Of Jazz Revolutions
2. How To Hear Bubbles
3. The Jazz Of History

The Structure Of Jazz Revolutions

Unsurprisingly, Kuhn also frequently references “revolution.” According to Kuhn, revolutions occur when “existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created,” and they can overtake governments as well as scientific paradigms. Defining “institutions” in a broader sense, for example as the stylistic and professional practices that a working musician operates within, or replacing “institutions” with “big bands arrangements, chordal improvisation, the American popular songbook” or a similar idea, and Kuhn’s scientific or political “problem” could easily be a musical “issue.”

For example, the issue of improvisation within the context of swing big bands in the forties has been well documented by jazz historians. At that time, in that musical setting, musicians who excelled at or enjoyed ensemble work could thrive while aspiring soloists lacked the same opportunities. From its beginnings jazz has increasingly relied upon rhythmic displacement, paraphrase, variation and other aspects of improvisation. Jazz also entered American popular music at virtually the same time it coalesced into a recognizable idiom. Yet as Ted Gioia points out in The Imperfect Art, improvisation “has never been the public’s cup of tea, and since [Louis] Armstrong improvisation has slowly come to dominate jazz.”

To his credit, Kuhn even seems to describe musicians chafing under what they felt as constraints during the big band era and the feelings that led to musical revolution. When Kuhn describes how “individuals become increasingly estranged from political life and behave more and more eccentrically within it,” replace “political” with “big band” or “studio” and you can practically hear Roy Eldridge’s high notes, Art Tatum’s dense runs or Dizzy Gillespie playing “Chinese music” when Cab Calloway wasn’t around. There was bound to be tension between jazz and popular music but the consequences of that tension were never written in stone.

Kuhn explains that “as in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community.” Within the jazz community of the forties, the needs of a specific group of musicians, those who identified “jazz” primarily with solo improvisation as well as greater harmonic and rhythmic complexity (rather than melodic refinement, collective participation or danceability) were not being met. The bop revolution was not just a rejection of prevailing norms but also a redefinition of “jazz.” For these players, jazz could/should be a vehicle for the soloist, exploring sophisticated technical and music ideas, playing for listeners and not dancers, front and center, left to do their own thing (perhaps more admirable when it was actually in front of an empty room). That thing caught on, while ensemble conceptions of jazz or ones that eschew progressive harmonic or rhythmic ideas are still often associated with musical archaism or popular concession.

Ted Gioia, writing in The Imperfect Art, summed up the culmination of the forties young lions’ stance on improvisation in 1988:
Yet improvisation, if not restricted to jazz, is nonetheless essential to it. [Jelly Roll] Morton’s music, as well as that of other early jazz masters-Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and their contemporaries-reflects its central role. More than any of these artists’ compositional or technical innovations, improvisation remains today the most distinctive element of a jazz performance-so much that a jazz instrumentalist is evaluated almost entirely on his ability as a soloist.
To most of the jazz community, Gioia’s description no doubt still sounds like a teleological end. Decades of not only experiencing jazz from a specific lens but looking back on its past through that lens can make the music of Fletcher Henderson’s pre-Armstrong orchestra, the Original Memphis Five, the John Kirby Sextet and others sound frustratingly different rather than refreshingly unique. Contemporary musicians playing in that style may receive praise but rarely without a sense that they are a niche rather than an aspect of the jazz mainstream. Did Steve Greenlee’s review of The Fat Babies’ new album in JazzTimes have to begin with a reference to “museums”? Is that the only band that draws inspiration from earlier sources?

Kuhn’s description of revolutionary-era societies “divided into competing camps or parties, one seeking to defend the old institutional constellation, the others seeking to institute some new one” is a fair description for the stylistic tug of war in the postwar jazz community (and maybe now). Yet the “old” camp was not simply defending the status quo or taking a reactionary stance. It found great expressive potential in those older/other idioms. If those practitioners ever saw their music as a commercial compromise, that just aligned with their goal of reaching as broad an audience as possible. Reading Thomas Brothers’s explanation that “Natty Dominique believed that all New Orleans musicians were entertainers first” alongside Garvin Bushell noting how Johnny and Baby Dodds both “regarded themselves as artists,” Gioia’s description of “an artistic force freed from the confining bonds of mass appeal” begins to sound subjective, maybe over-determined.

Decades of the soloist-centered, artist-centered concept of jazz as the mostly undisputed norm disguise the fact that it was the result of what one part of the jazz community wanted, assisted by some extra-musical forces. Kuhn suggests that to understand any revolution one must “examine not only the impact of nature and logic but also the technologically persuasive argument.” In the case of jazz during the forties, calling anything “modern” and therefore defining it in opposition to “traditional, old guard” or just “old” is still a persuasive device. Younger players describing the older New Orleans style as “nursery rhymes,” rebranding jazz musicians as artists rather than entertainers and the emphasis on identity politics all helped one camp’s views to ascend based on far more than pitches and rhythms.

The idea of something other than music shaping the course of music is not groundbreaking. Kuhn noting that “an apparently arbitrary element, compounded of personal historical accident, is always a formative ingredient of the beliefs espoused by a given…community” sounds a lot like Marc Myers’s point that “events unrelated to the music or the artists have influenced the emergence and direction of major jazz styles.” Kuhn’s point may have been shocking to scientists in 1962 but not to political, social or art historians in 2014. Replace “scientific” with “musical” and Kuhn might as well be describing innovations in recording technology, the musicians’ strikes of the forties or other factors now clearly articulated by Myers in his Why Jazz Happened.

Yet beyond those parallels, the arbitrary nature of any change makes it harder to take its results for granted. For example the fall of the three-minute jazz recording may have been a technological inevitability but not a musical one. Plenty of jazz musicians of the LP era kept their performances under five minutes. There were (and remain) alternatives to the dozen-chorus model of jazz improvisation. Yet the effects of this technological event are now treated as the raison d’être of jazz and viewed as a step in “freeing” jazz musicians to express themselves. Today’s listeners can not only hear chorus after chorus of improvisation from their musical idols but expect as much if the music is categorized “jazz.”

MichelangeloCreationOfSunAndMoonFromSistineChapelDiscussing the effects of “writing history backwards,” Kuhn describes the tendency to “refer only to that part of the work of past scientists that can easily be viewed as a contribution to the statement and solution of the text’s paradigm problems.” A little catachresis (“musician” for scientist, “style, genre” or even “listeners” or “critics” for “problems”) makes Kuhn’s description resemble the great man, X begat Y model of so many jazz histories. Critics listen to King Oliver to hear what Louis Armstrong learned from him and historians pick out parts of Don Redman arrangements that dovetail with contemporary understanding of a jazz big band. Vestigial ideas such as Oliver’s novelty effects or Redman’s clarinet trios and creative musicians who didn’t found a school of influence such as Don Murray or Johnny Dunn are either ignored or classified “not jazz.”

When John McDonough describes Earl Hines’s late twenties band in terms of “thin saxophone voicings and an arthritic two-beat, banjo-tuba rhythm section that trapped soloists (Hines included) in a vocabulary of quarter notes” before its “breakthrough” incorporation of string bass in 1932, McDonough evaluates his subject according to a standard that had not yet been established in its own context. According to this analytical model, early jazz is only worthwhile according to its resemblance to what we recognize in the present day. It’s the equivalent of criticizing Michelangelo’s works because of their religious emphasis and suggesting that he should have done more protest art.

This model overlooks the fact that early jazz musicians players were, in Kuhn’s words, not “working upon the same set of fixed problems [i.e. musical concepts] and in the same set of fixed canons” as contemporary jazz musicians. Tubas and three-part sax sections may or may not have been economic or acoustic compromises in their town time. Yet rather than understanding what the early Hines band made possible with those supposed compromises, this critical position attempts to locate the point at which the band started to get it “right” according to present standards. If this model were applied to discussions of modern piano’s place in Western classical music or pre versus post-electrically amplified guitar, it would generate a very sleek but one-sided picture of the topic.

How To Hear Bubbles

If this type of analysis were limited to jazz critics and textbook writers it might seem like an academic problem. Yet Kuhn even seems to describe the impressive but blandly uniform virtuosity of many young players that is debated time and time again in jazz circles. If the jazz student “joins men who learned the bases of their field from the same concrete models [and] his subsequent practice will seldom evoke overt disagreement over fundamentals” it might preclude productive debates about those fundamentals and their alternatives.

Kuhn also points out “unless he has experienced a revolution in their lifetime, the historical sense of the working scientist [read ‘musician’ or ‘musicologist’] or lay reader of textbook literature [‘clubgoer’] extends only to the outcome of the most recent revolutions in the field.” Jazz musicians, especially the elder statesmen, aren’t getting any younger. Without any living links to what it was like to play jazz before Bird, Coltrane, or Esperanza, some pedagogy must be in place to demonstrate that there was, and still can be, such a thing.

Young jazz players still diligently practice Bird heads and “Giant Steps,” and many explore R&B, hip-hop, world and other genres. Yet the ones practicing tailgate trombone or Coleman Hawkins’s “Stampede” solo are fewer and far between. How much exposure do students at The New School receive to Jelly Roll Morton or Fud Livingston’s works? How many Berklee students play in ensembles for ragtime, classic blues, New Orleans collective improvisation, Chicago style, hot dance or any of the other prewar, so-called “Dixieland” idioms? The “decade-defined periods” and “logical, flowing developmental narrative” that Kenneth E. Prouty critiques in his “Towards Jazz’s ‘Official’ History: The Debates And Discourses Of Jazz History’s ‘Textbooks’” allows a neat package that leaves out a lot of nuance.

bubblechamberimageKuhn even offers some comments about scientists’ work that sound uncannily like many criticisms leveled at contemporary jazz:
No longer will his researches [read one’s own pick of “improvisations, compositions” or “gigs”] be …addressed…to anyone who might be interested in the subject matter of this field. Instead…addressed only to professional colleagues, the men whose knowledge of a shared paradigm can be assumed and who prove to be the only ones able to read the papers [read “hear all of the notes, understand the harmonic sophistication or complex meters”].
The phrase “music for musicians” can seem like a cliché in jazz discussions but is hard to ignore given the very specific background and training needed to perform many types of contemporary jazz. Kuhn describes how “looking at a bubble-chamber photograph, the student sees confused and broken lines, the physicist a record of familiar subnuclear events. Only after a number of such transformations of vision does the student become an inhabitant of the scientist’s world, seeing what the scientist sees and responding as the scientist does.” In a jazz, the question is how much of a student does a listener have to become just to appreciate or even enjoy the music?

The Jazz of History

Whether he intended to or not, Kuhn offers an alternative that might serve music historians, students and listeners well. Instead of the accretion model that merely discards older paradigms, Kuhn praises historians who evaluate paradigms within their own framework and understand the needs that that those concepts were responding to:
Rather than seeking the permanent contributions of an older science to our present vantage, they attempt to display the historical integrity of that science in its own time. They ask, for example, not about the relation of Galileo’s views to those of modern science, but rather about the relationship between his views and those of his group, i.e. his teachers, contemporaries, and immediate successors…they insist upon studying the opinions of that group and other similar ones from the viewpoint-usually very different from that of modern science-that gives those opinions the maximum internal coherence…
Musical analogs to this approach are easy to imagine but returning to the earlier example of improvisation, its reduced role in many pieces of earlier jazz may now seem like shortchanging the soloist. Eight-bar hot solos in the midst of countless dance band records cause many listeners to imagine frustrated musicians wishing for more room and to wonder what their idols might have sounded like if they were “really” allowed to perform. The idea that improvisation was an ingredient rather than the substance of jazz at that time and that jazz musicians found value in written parts as well as ad-libbed won’t change contemporary tastes, but it might shift understanding. The question stops being whether Phil Napoleon or Buster Bailey could do what Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker do, but whether they ever thought to do it, or even wanted to.

Assuming that, as Kuhn does, “earlier generations pursued their own problems with their own instruments and own canons,” in other words treating the past like an end rather than a step, history can seem like its own unique bundle of possibilities. Surprisingly, it begins to resemble Kuhn’s description of a post-revolutionary viewpoint, where one is “transported to another planet where familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well.” Drug companies or rocket scientists might not want to conduct research using past theories but Kuhn’s approach could be incredibly rewarding for open-minded jazz lovers.

For one last game of wordplay, see Kuhn’s characterization of Robert Boyle:
He was a leader of a scientific revolution that, by changing the relation of “element” to chemical manipulation and chemical theory, transformed the notion into a tool quite different from it had been before and transformed both chemistry and the chemist’s word…”
Try changing “Boyle” to “Armstrong,” “element” to “improvisation,” “scientific” to “musical” and anything related to chemistry with a term related to jazz. Perhaps a silly exercise but one that yields an accurate statement. Unlike science, in jazz there is no need to choose between pre and post-Armstrong, Parker, Coltrane, Davis, Payton, Iyer, etc. paradigms. It really is just music.

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A Whole Other Jazz Birthday

Jazz birthdays can be a bit inundating: there are so many to cover, and All About Jazz and Confetta Ras do that so well already. Yet today is Louis Armstrong’s birthday (one of them anyway); the Internet can afford some more kudos…

Chances are that anyone reading this blog has a favorite Armstrong recording, performance or “good old good one.” This “Tiger Rag,” live from Copenhagen in 1932 wasn’t my first experience listening to Armstrong but it was the first time I really heard him:

“Solo” implies part of a larger performance, a section that the collective designates for the individual. In jazz, it usually implies a relation to the tune, an outgrowth of the source material via the designated soloist. Yet Armstrong’s phrases are so abstract yet absolutely melodic, so grand and deeply personal yet approachable all at once, that he might as well be crafting a sculpture in the middle of the stage. This may have been a memorized “set piece” and listeners may or may not recognize “Tiger Rag,” but his performance could well be called Fantasia In G or simply Untitled, not because it needs the prestige of classical terminology but because that performance is an independent work in its own right. “Solo” just never really captured what Armstrong accomplishes in this clip (for me anyway).

As for the rest of this “Tiger,” for many listeners its manic opening probably sounds like a textbook illustration of the relaxation, confidence and poise that Armstrong brought to jazz and American popular music as a whole. On the other hand it may just be another side of jazz, one that Armstrong was smart enough to learn from even as he continued to appreciate it. Armstrong is one alternative among many in jazz but he is one hell of an option. So why not stop converting copies of The New Yorker to toilet paper for a while and celebrate that alternative?

Louis-Armstrong-and-Miles-Davis

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