Tag Archives: jazz blog

Five Letters That Feel Like Four

Fire That Press Agent, Eddie

I’ve hated the word “Dixieland” since I first gathered a few friends from my high school band to play the music of Jelly Roll Morton, the Bobcats and other prewar jazz musicians. No matter how much I insisted that we were playing “traditional jazz,” the label “Dixieland” stuck with teachers, parents and other (unfortunate) listeners.

My distaste for that word had nothing to do with any cultural or chronological connotations.  Ironically, as a kid who had spent his whole life in Brooklyn with occasional travel as far as City Island, I had no idea that “Dixie” signified the South, especially some (ridiculous) vision of an idyllic antebellum South. If “Dixie” meant “archaic,” my teenaged reverse conformism just thought, “the older, the better!” No, I hated that five-letter word because it reminded me of an earlier childhood treat that had neither the longevity or nutritional value of jazz.

I had only heard “Dixie” in reference to the circular bricks of processed ice cream that elementary school teachers deposited on my desk as a sign of celebration (read, pacification), food that didn’t merit a spoon but just included a small, dull, wooden plank, a utensil that correctional officers might like because inmates couldn’t carve it into a shank. “Dixieland” reminded me of Dixie Cups, and that was an outrage.

“‘Cause Ice Cream Scoops Are Bourgey!”

Sure, the word “Dixie” could have seemed like a bite of nostalgia, almost the way it did for the lyricists of tunes such as “Anything Is Nice If It Comes From Dixieland” or “There Ain’t No Land Like Dixieland,” anthems to a kinder, simpler time (that was never kind or simple).  “Dixieland” bands did reference the early days of jazz through choice of repertoire, collectively improvised ensembles and their preference for blue thirds over flatted fifths. Some Dixielanders paid obvious (sometimes gratuitous) homage to the original artists.

Phil Napoleon Never Played Dixieland.

Yet those artists’ music had to deserve a better label than that of a tiny, soggy, syrupy sweet confection aimed at underdeveloped palettes. By extension, the thin horns and bloodless rhythm sections I heard from many so-called “Dixieland” groups was a far cry from Bix Beiderbecke’s popping ensembles, King Oliver’s dense, earthy polyphony or even the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s almost frighteningly frantic attack. The music of the “Chicagoans and the best contemporary “trad” players listened back but resounded in the here and now. By contrast “Dixieland” seemed like sugarcoated revision rather than sincere reflection.

Of course the distinction between good music, bad music and bad labels gets clearer as I get older (while straw hats and red suspenders will always be just plain awful): like ice cream or a host of other delights, everyone knows what’s good or bad when they hear it.  “Dixie” remains something that’s tolerable in small doses but will eventually make me sick.

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Who’s On First: Lead Altos and Jazz Tall Tales

Dance music of the twenties and thirties: dreary, colorless and filled with musicians diligently playing dull written parts, until an improvised break or solo allowed them to display their individuality and inject a brief moment of “jazz” amidst all that “commercial” music.

Except when it wasn’t.

Comparing Frank Trumbauer leading the sax section on C melody saxophone for “Baltimore”

with Chester Hazlett’s lead alto on “Lila”

the difference isn’t just about instrument or arrangement. These are two entirely different approaches to timbre, phrasing and section balance: Trumbauer’s dry tone sliding in and out of the theme from between his reed section colleagues, versus Hazlett’s buttery, vibrato-laden and slightly (deliciously) nasal sound providing a lush melody statement on top of the other saxophones.

Both players fashion entirely distinct and deeply personal approaches despite (perhaps even through!) written parts.  Neither tune was the cream of the compositional crop, and the chance to shine with multiple improvised choruses on Rhythm changes was a few years and at least one stylistic revolution away. Yet whatever the difference between “jazz” and “commercial” music, there’s clearly a difference between the music on paper and the music at work in these two recordings.

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Public Service Post in Honor of Charlie Christian

Christian with Gibson ES-150, Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, 1939

Even if Charlie Christian had lived to celebrate his 96th birthday yesterday, or his 26th birthday decades ago, his music would remain just as momentous and swinging.  Despite a short career, Christian never suffered from “young man with an instrument” syndrome: a fast life and early death never overshadowed his pioneering work as a jazz soloist*, electric guitarist or unintentional advocate for racial equality.

There’s a wealth of information on the internet about Christian’s life and impact (here, here and here, for example) and plenty of his music on YouTube, but a less than copious search by this blogger indicates one unfortunate omission.

The [original] Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz included a composite of Christian’s solos from five (5) takes of “Breakfast Feud” across two recording dates with the Benny Goodman Sextet in 1941.  Even if it’s already out there in cyberspace, it bears duplication:

Here’s some musical commentary from Aram Avakian and Bob Prince’s liner notes to the Columbia compilation, Charlie Christian with the Benny Goodman SextetEmphasis mine for Tweet-friendly reading:

A singular aspect of [Christian's] phrasing is the unusual length of his melodic lines, consisting of even and cleanly executed eighth notes.  His meter was delineated by the subtle accent of certain of these eighth notes…These solos are individual and original, the phrasing and accents within each one being unpredictable.  In the initial three-bar phrase in the first of these solos, Christian shifts the metric accent from the normally strong first beat to the secondary third beat, thereby creating the illusion that he is starting his phrase on a pick-up when in reality he is starting on the first beat of the chorus…This type of practice, unusual to jazz at the time, reveals another facet of Christian’s rhythmic daring and resourcefulness.

The ensemble playing that jumping fanfare includes Goodman on clarinet, Cootie Williams on trumpet, Georgie Auld on tenor sax, Artie Bernstein on bass, Johnny Guarnieri on piano and Jo Jones on drums.   Here’s one entire take of “Breakfast Feud,” with more from the group plus two false starts (which must have had the meticulous Goodman grinding his teeth):

It’s enough to make a person disregard when any of them died, just that they were alive.

*Disclaimer: This writer in no way thinks that Bix Beiderbecke deserves anything less than the interest and devotion that his brief but important career has inspired, and that his early death is NOT the only reason for that attention. Please  put that two by four with the nail in it DOWN…

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“Sincerely, Bill Rank”

Here’s part three of an insightful documentary on YouTube about Bill Rank and his performances in Holland. Rank is best known as a sideman with Bix Beiderbecke, but “Santopec” comments on a confident, unique trombonist who continued to grow long after Beiderbecke’s Goethe-esque early passing:

The incredible technique is still there after “all those years,” even more well integrated into a highly personal (though clearly indebted to Miff Mole) style based off of wide intervals and suspended harmonies.  The difference is a surer, more rounded sound and suppler sense of construction, which allows those leaps and notes to color Rank’s inventions rather than anchor them (as they occasionally do on earlier records). Hearing Rank’s music on its own terms, without any legendary colleagues surrounding it, is the real find.

As for the “modest and captivating” person playing these solos, he confesses to embarrassment at the privileged treatment by his Dutch fans, and he still pronounces the name of an admired colleague with a Midwestern clip (“Adrian Roll-IN-e“).  Not much to do with the music, but sometimes the brain and heart behind the notes matter.  Who’d have thought?

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Sudie Reynaud and Pure Music

In case any producers were wondering, “The Complete Sudie Reynaud” would fit on one compact disc.

A whole CD devoted to an obscure Jazz Age bassist might require some snappy marketing, and many collectors already own this collection via reissues under Reynaud’s more well-known collaborators.  Sudie Reynaud will undoubtedly, and thankfully, remain unknown in every sense of the word.

“Maybe Brass Bass, or Bass Sax, On My Next Album…”

His discography lists him as playing both string bass and tuba, which evidences a basic, and therefore all the more impressive, skill needed to gig in Reynaud’s time.  “Bass” meant both “string” and “brass” varieties during this transitional period in jazz and American pop, so “bass player” meant someone who could double both instruments.   Steve Brown did so reluctantly, preferring his bull fiddle and the chance to unleash a signature slap technique.  Cyrus St. Clair on the other hand preferred to puff rather than pluck: he stuck to brass bass well into the forties, developing jazz tuba into an art decades before Howard Johnson or Bill Lowe.  John Kirby split the difference through clean, fast and clever bass lines on both instruments.  Chink Martin doubled without drawing too much attention to himself on either instrument, yet his foundation and lift can be heard on dozens of recordings.

Reynaud cut just sixteen sides in his life, recorded sporadically between 1926 and 1933 in Chicago.  Like Martin, he serves a functional but spurring role (except for two barely audible sessions on tuba with Fess Williams that can be heard here).  On “High Fever” with Doc Cook’s band, Reynaud catches all the ensemble hits and resonates under the band without overwhelming it, even through a stomping final chorus:

While Freddie Keppard‘s ranging cornet dominates this side as well as “Sidewalk Blues,” Reynaud’s part is simple and well-defined: provide ground rhythm and outline the harmonic skeleton (while doing so musically, as Tom Smith’s comment below explains).  That role doesn’t allow any insight into Reynaud’s influences, his style, or his personality.  All that’s left is pure music, which makes the strutting atmosphere on Jelly Roll Morton‘s tune possible:

If Reynaud were known for nothing other than contributing to “Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man” he’d have an enviable legacy.  It remains one of the most rhythmic, confident examples of “hot” artistry from this or any other era, and it’s hard to imagine without those roots and fifth punching away underneath:

Five years later Reynaud was back in the studio under the direction of trumpeter and would-be Louis Armstrong rival Reuben Reeves.  The antiphonal lines of reedman Franz Jackson‘s arrangements and the loose, declaratory, Armstrong-inspired language of the soloists illustrate the evolution from hot jazz to nascent big band swing, as do the four steady beats of Reynaud’s string bass, which never steals the show but does make it possible.

He’s felt rather than heard through the swirling darkness of “Zuddan.”  He nourishes the stream of solos on “Mazie” and “Screws, Nuts and Bolts” (which includes the simply dirtiest growl imaginable, courtesy of Reeves).  Only on “Yellow Five” does Reynaud peek out from the curtain, with thwacking strings and a strong four beat slap towards the end of the side:

[Click Here to Listen to "Yellow Five," by Reuben "River" Reeves and His River Boys]

There’s no way now to understand him as an artist, no recorded innovations or theatrics to shed some light on him as a human being as well as a sideman (for this listener, his tone isn’t even as distinct as that of Country Washburne, Pete Briggs or John Lindsay).  There aren’t any memoirs, interviews or even biographical entries pertaining to Reynaud, either because no researchers have bothered to look or he died without leaving any to find.  Whoever Sudie Reynaud was, he did his job.  In other words, “Sudie Reynaud,” historical enigma, biographical cipher and musical everyman, is now pure music.  There are far worse fates.

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Red Nichols: The Grand-Uncle of Cool

Cool jazz is usually assumed to have been a reaction to bebop that first appeared in the late forties, with opponents popping up soon after.  It’s no secret that Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer were experimenting with “cooler” sounds in the twenties.  Yet the lineage of the cool, as well as its its haters, is just as strong in the music of Ernest Loring “Red” Nichols.  Both Red’s jazz and cool jazz share a sense of exploration and reflection, along with critics who were unable to listen past their own fiery, immediate preconceptions.

For Nichols’ kindest adversaries, he was merely a Bix Beiderbecke imitator, while words like “cold” and “mechanical” have logged a lot of mileage courtesy of his other detractors.  Such attacks may or may not have to do with the unromantic truth that Nichols was a disciplined, shrewd player and businessman who was able to pay his bills.  Geographically, chronologically and musically, he was also his own musician, .  During a period when “jazz” meant earthy and “hot,” Nichols had the imagination and gall to work with lighter textures, nuanced arrangements and subdued, cerebral energy.  A lucrative studio career has resulted in a nearly insurmountable discography, but  Nichols’ take on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Washboard Blues” best illustrates his singular cornet and style:

Nichols’ way with a front line speaks volumes from the start.  Instead of the three-way polyphony heard in hundreds of combos at the time, cornet and clarinet lay down a bone-dry lead  (similar to the brass and reed front lines of most post-war groups).  The attention to detail for just two horns is also revealing, first answering Eddie Lang‘s guitar in unison for the introduction, then switching to tight, coy harmony for the melody, with Vic Berton‘s timpani offering its own abstract commentary.  When collective improvisation does materialize, it’s with the same balance and intimacy heard earlier.  Even the timbres are telling: Nichols’ clean, lithe, slightly clipped cornet, Jimmy Dorsey whistling polished, cutting phrases on clarinet.

The false fingerings and ghosted notes of Nichols’ solo illustrate why “clever” doesn’t have to be an epithet.  Dorsey’s arpeggios and phrase entrances come across as more acrobatic but equally measured.  Pianist Arthur “The Baron” Schutt shows off his classical studies with busy, two-fisted rubato, while Lang’s strings resemble a steely, pensive harpsichord.  The players cherry-pick their notes as though in the midst of some detailed internal calculus, insistently (and for that time, bravely) refusing to throw everything in until they know what’s possible.  Many critics hear careful reserve.  Other listeners just notice technique, curiosity and patience.

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Opine, Y’All: M. Figg’s Desert Island Jazz at the Moment

In an effort to keep International Jazz Day going and keep my money where my mouth is, here’s a few suggestions for weekend or anytime listening.  They’re completely a matter of opinion, in no particular order and categorized in a completely subjective manner.  So start drafting those syllabi and get thee to the library/download queue!

The Stuff We All (Are Told We Should) Know (and Maybe) Love
-Louis Armstrong, The Hot Fives and Sevens: the first jazz soloist that sounds like “jazz” to most listeners.
-Charlie Parker, on Savoy, Dial, Verve, etc., take your pick: finding an off-day is hard, but not impossible, and not even really that “off.”
-Duke Ellington, any of the Suites: Ellington as a mature composer, weaving textures and colors jazz could never look back from.
-Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um: experimentation rooted in history.
-The (Old or New) Smithsonian Anthology of Jazz: love ‘em or hate ‘em, it’s hard to argue with the music packed into these collections.

Big Bands (A Choice of Instruments, Not an Era)
-Count Basie’s recordings for Decca: as swinging and soloistic as it gets!
-Benny Goodman, The Harry James Year, Volume I: also as swinging and soloistic as it gets, just different!
- Fletcher Henderson, A Study in Frustration: there is simply no music that sounds like Henderson’s late twenties sides, period, and his band’s alumni roster reads like a who’s-who of jazz greats.
-Don Ellis, Electric Bath: jazz that made electric sounds work, before “jazz got electric,” as well as often cluttered, static, fuzzy and unswinging.
-Miles Davis with Gil Evans’ Orchestra, Porgy and Bess: a jazz concerto with orchestrated improvisation, courtesy of jazz’s Debussy and its prince of darkness.

Chinese Music*
*Cab Calloway’s clever term and this blog’s leanings aside, the following albums feature lucid phrases and swinging rhythm, as well as a lot of fancy scales.
-Dizzy Gillespie with Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins, Sonny Side Up: worth it for “The Eternal Triangle” alone.
-John Coltrane, Blue Train: blues, ballads and blistering, balanced bebop; could there be a more perfect album?
-Clifford Brown with the Max Roach/Sonny Rollins Quintet, Complete Studio Recordings: CAUTION, might make you want to give up playing, or learn how to play!
-Miles Davis, Milestones: Davis’ melodic sense, Coltrane’s harmonic deconstructions and Cannonball Adderley‘s bluesy runs, all on top of an ideal rhythm section of Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones; could there be a more perfect album?

Goodies but Never Oldies
-Jelly Roll Morton‘s Red Hot Peppers: swinging, imaginative and just plain good music, no flatted fifths* or bass drum bombs* needed.
-Louis Armstrong, name something made before 1930: not to demean his later work, but his recordings as a sideman and developing bandleader are simply an entity unto themselves.
-King Oliver‘s Creole Jazz Band: the Plato‘s Republic of jazz, filled with phrases and rhythms that laid the foundation for jazz as a distinct art form.

-John Coltrane, Ballads: the man not only knew how to play a melody, he positively relishes it on this album.
-Charlie Parker, Bird with Strings: an enchanting but commercial aspect of Parker’s career? Bold experiment with lyricism and texture? Either way a wholly unique experience.
-Benny Goodman’s  Trios, Quartets and Sextets:Body and Soul,” “Moonglow,” “Memories of You,”Stardust,” “Poor Butterfly,” and others, with Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian and others stretching out…could there be a more…what?  I said that already?  Twice?

Unsung Heroes
-Clarence WilliamsColumbia sides, washboard groups or any of a thousand pseudonymous groups: jazz polymath Williams led some of the most exciting, unique groups in the twenties, more than worth the search through Amazon to hear.
-Red NicholsRed Heads, Five Pennies, with Miff Mole’s Molers or any of a million pseudonymous groups: unfortunately marching to the beat of your own horn and making a living while doing it doesn’t often lend itself to jazz posterity.  One of the most unique and despised musicians in history who’s only now beginning to get some long overdue credit.
-New Orleans Rhythm Kings: a joyous, airy beat, transparent ensembles and great soloists (playing in the twenties and who aren’t Louis Armstrong or Sidney Bechet!)
-Sahib Shihab & The Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra: if this collection of dynamic soloists and intriguing charts set to a juggernaut rhythm had been created and released by an American group under the name of a more well-known bopper, it would still be a shame to miss out on.
-King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators: Oliver led this big band after his legendary Creole Jazz Band broke up, filled with a variety of soloists and a decidedly earthy touch to dance band arrangements.
-Buster Bailey: clarinetist with a stunning technique, tossing out endlessly sunny lines that rarely gets his due.  See also “Don Murray.”
-Don Murray: clarinetist with a stunning technique, tossing out endlessly sunny lines that rarely gets his due.  See also “Buster Bailey.”
-Ed Allen: brilliant for a clean ensemble lead or rhythmically loose solo, no wonder Clarence Williams used him on so many sessions.

New Stuff (i.e. Released Within the Past Year)
-Esperanza Spalding, Radio Music Society: imaginative arrangements and clear production only add to the sheer catchy joy of this album.
-Vicious World, Plays the Music of Rufus Wainwright: heartbreakingly beautiful songs given tasteful, airy arrangements.
-Ambrose Akinmusire, When the Heart Emerges Glistening: admittedly an album I’m only now getting around to, filled with massive emotions that make it kryptonite for concentrating on anything else.
-Terrel Stafford, This Side of Strayhorn: melody and swing, great tunes…melody and swing, unfamiliar material from a gifted composer…melody and swing, a leader who understands his sidemen and vice versa…melody and swing

Once in a while us hobbyists come in handy.  Have a great weekend and happy listening!

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