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Beauty, Rhythm and Paychecks with Ben Pollack’s Boys

Here’s a case for all the popular music that jazz musicians had to record just to make ends meet during the prewar era.

The following session includes some of the best players in New York at that time, regulars in Ben Pollack‘s band and performing here in one of the many studio groups organized by impresario Irving Mills. Young Benny Goodman sticks to reading alto saxophone parts, and Jack Teagarden’s trombone is barely audible, yet it’s not just commercial dross:

Scholars and purists will probably fast-forward to Jimmy McPartland’s cornet solo. Some might even mention criminally underrated saxophonist Larry Binyon. Yet McPartland is as rich, penetrating and warm on straight lead as he is in his Beiderbecke-inspired improvisation.  A typical prewar sax section (two altos and a tenor) has a bright, buttery sound that’s a refreshing change of pace from more modern reeds. Even the unknown, operetta-inspired crooner sounds more than bearable with Dick McPartland’s banjo, Harry Goodman’s tuba and Ray Bauduc‘s drums guarding the beat behind him.

Despite the simple tune and small space given to improvisation, a group of talented musicians makes it beautiful as well as rhythmic.  There’s no way to tell if heroes are happy, but these professionals certainly sound good.

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A Very Brief History of Jazz via “Tiger Rag”

everynote.comThis list is more stylistic than chronological, and certainly less than comprehensive, but hopefully it still provides a fair overview of the music’s development.  At the very least it shows that good musicians never play “the same old tune.”

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Unfortunately, YouTube removed a great clip of Barry Ulanov’s All Stars, featuring Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Lennie Tristano playing “Tiger Rag.


Readers are encouraged to share examples  of “Tiger Fusion, Tiger Latin, Tiger Atonal, Tiger Hip Hop” or their own favorite exploration of this perennial favorite.

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Get To Work and Do It Our Way: Italian Composers In France

ha2Like British rockers in America during the sixties or Latin pop stars in the nineties, throughout the eighteenth century major European opera venues clamored for Italian composers (as well as singers, librettists and instrumentalists). Yet France seemed to make their imports work harder than anyone else.

Unlike in most countries, Italian musicians in France had to adapt to the language and style of their adoptive land. Learning a foreign language is one thing, but writing it, singing it and setting it to music is another. Piccinni didn’t speak a word of French when he was brought to Paris to work on Roland. With just some coaching from his librettist Marmontel and his own musical instincts, Piccinni made a suitably French, singularly Piccinnist work, for example taking the heroine’s somewhat verbose preaching about love and grafting on his own rich melody and orchestration:

Later on, Piccinni even even sneaks in a very Italianate “storm simile” aria:

French opera in general, with its big choruses, grand ballets, talky plots and emphasis on refinement and artifice rather than virtuosity and immediacy was very different from the Italian style. Musicologist Mariateresa Dellaborra summarizes the French aesthetic as art that sought to “…touch the soul and do so with grace, [while] always (emphasis mine) giving pleasure.” If the Italians had fire in their veins, the French had perfume running through theirs.

Setting aside things like truth, naturalness, complexity or excitement in favor of polish, escapism, unrelenting pleasantry and detachment, listeners can get closer to appreciating (if not liking) this music. Add the idea of immigrant composers, assimilating a foreign style and maintaining the Italian spirit that made them so popular, while also forging an individual sound to compete with their fellow expatriates, and these works become something more than a sugary diversion for the elite. The music turns out to be as challenging for the listener as the composer.

For example, how to portray and absorb disturbing moments using only elegant and lovely sounds? When Ceres hears that her daughter Persephone has been kidnapped and brought to Hades (remember: escapism), Paisiello paints her shock in melancholy but plush colors, without the crushing chords or rhythms contemporary listeners might associate with these feelings:

Paisiello’s music is all about beautiful surfaces and introverted, reserved charm. Neither the composer or his audience were seeking psychological insight (a very modern value). He does gives Ceres a chance to lash out with an air of rage and dissonance, but places beauty above urgency or verisimilitude. Ceres’ anger is expressed in the most stylized terms possible, the aural equivalent of Canova making a sculpture out of Guernica:

Ceres’ lyrical, even hummable fury exemplifies Paisiello’s touch: it’s hard not to get the music accompanying the line [at about 0:40 in the above clip] “Why did you steal something so sweet from me?” stuck in your head. It’s easy to hear why composers across Europe envied the Italians’ knack for a clean, gorgeous theme. Dido’s air “Hélas! Pour nous Il Exposé…” (Alas, For Us He Exposes Himself To Risk…”) is a suspenseful portrayal of her fears for Aeneas’ life, but it uses a catchy motif to drives the sentiment right into the audience’s memory (and it’s vaguely reminiscent of Verdi’s famous motif in La Forza del Destino):

Yet Dido’s climactic end is thoroughly French: she says her last words, stabs herself with Aeneas’ sword and the people of Carthage swear vengeance on Rome in perfectly restrained, stately and gorgeous cadences. No big disturbing chords spelling death, no excessive displays of emotion. The final chorus might even sound triumphant if it weren’t for the lyrics about “eternal war”:

With the onset of Romanticism and an emphasis on broader emotions and flashier harmonies, these operas as well as those of other paisan in Paris like Sacchini, Salieri and Cherubini might seem a little vanilla. Yet they display more than craftsmanship, tunesmithing or the skill needed to reach beyond national and cultural borders. These operas are entirely unique aesthetic modes. Travel writer Rick Steves advises that “if something’s not to your liking, change your liking.” It might be enough to just consider other forms of “liking” and go from there.

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Fess Williams and Eric Dolphy Playing Their Saxophones

What do Fess Williams and Eric Dolphy have in common? For starters, both played for none other than Charles Mingus.

Dolphy, prophet of the jazz avant-garde, deeply admired by Mingus and considered one of the most galvanizing forces to ever play with the bassist/composer, and Williams, an incredibly popular bandleader during the twenties, now mostly remembered for his gas pipe clarinet that even diehard collectors merely tolerate: both appeared at Mingus’ (in)famous Town Hall Concert of 1962. Dolphy performed most of the show, but Mingus brought Williams, a.k.a. his Uncle Stanley, onstage briefly to show off some circular breathing.

Even more important than a boss or an uncle, Williams and Dolphy share an ear for the humorous and disturbing, a penchant for making their instruments squeak, honk and pop, throwing in plenty of gangly dissonances and other sounds that most musicians leave behind alongside soft reeds and method books.

Compare Williams’ jagged breaks at the beginning of “Playing My Saxophone”:

with Dolphy’s entrance on his groundbreaking “Out To Lunch”:

and it’s easy to hear that both reedmen simply love sound: the more jarring, the better. It’s fun to imagine Dolphy and Williams backstage at Town Hall, not saying a word but merely trading squawks and fractured themes.

Both Williams and Dolphy also snub their noses at the clean lines and cultivated timbres no doubt enforced at the conservatories they trained in. That makes them both rebels, and jazz loves a good rebel! Yet given Williams’ period of activity and the large audiences he played to, his rejection of classical instruction seems more commercial, and therefore more suspect.  Most jazz histories (when they mention Williams at all) relegate him to “novelty.” Williams was out to make a buck, Dolphy sought to change ears and minds. Dolphy is the artist, Williams was merely an entertainer.

It’s a neat little distinction, but it speaks more to cultural interpretation than sheer sound. Dolphy does often display much quicker fingers and harmonic variety, yet that’s as much of a stylistic choice as Williams’ reliance on a percussive sound and bumpy phrases.  Even when the sounds aren’t so similar, both players’ sense of taking the listener to a different, even weirder place is clear. Simply listening to Dolphy’s blurting, burry bass clarinet on “Booker’s Waltz”:

back-to-back with Williams’ ambling slap tongue solo on “Dixie Stomp” illustrates two musicians who liked to play in every sense of that word:

Yet even assuming that Williams was just goofing off to make a buck and that Dolphy was in fact the serious artist pushing boundaries, all the listener is left with is the sound. The sound is out there to be heard.  Trying asking it about its motives, or whether it’s a novelty or work of art.

While We're At It, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Left) Stole Wilbur Sweatman's Act!

While We’re At It, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Right) Stole Wilbur Sweatman’s Act!

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A Contender for John Coltrane’s Favorite Tuba Player

Released in 1963, and even with its rhythm section and harmonic sensibility soaked in modern jazz, John Coltrane’s album Ballads may be one of the best examples of the prewar jazz aesthetic:

Coltrane’s reliance on pure tone and straightforward lyricism speaks to a style of jazz that can paraphrase melodies (even fast ones) as well as deconstruct them.  The “tune proper” isn’t thrown out after the first chorus, but partnered with throughout the performance, channeled to make something recognizable but personal.

Do yourself a favor and click on the following hyperlinks.  You will not be sorry.

Coltrane, the symbol of boundary-pushing, technically advanced modern jazz, keeps company with Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, as well as Phil Napoleon, Manny Klein and Joe Smith. Trumpeters were usually the ones playing lead in the twenties, thirties and forties, but saxophonist Frank Trumbauer and his way of paring down a melody to its essentials also comes to mind, as does trombonist Kid Ory.  Don Murray, with a gorgeously burry sound and distinct personality on baritone sax, also understood that the expressive potential of straight melody.  Even Guy Lombardo’s sax section, hated by jazz scholars and beloved by Armstrong for their clean melody statements, might have appreciated Coltrane’s approach on Ballads.

Coltrane’s glistening tenor sax even brings to mind tuba player Clinton Walker on “Frankie and Johnny” with King Oliver:

Walker provides a rich lead for the leader’s punctuations, and while he doesn’t get all of his notes out, its an admirable solo.  Modern ears may hear it as a novelty, but the tone, the attempt to control the sound and the refusal to harrumph reveal a player giving both the melody and his own voice their due.  Differences of chops, decades and octaves notwithstanding, these musicians were all about the tune.

Wonder If He Ever Heard Alberto Socarras?

Wonder If He Listened to Alberto Socarras?

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How (Not) To Listen To Early Jazz

All About Jazz has been very supportive of prewar jazz coverage, so I’m thrilled to see my column published on their website. In its latest article, I discuss some of the perceptions that make the music’s early sounds seem so removed from the jazz continuum. Hopefully it’ll inspire some open ears, and maybe a few stuffed stockings.

I also hope you’ll give it a read, right here. Thank you!

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Harry Carney’s Admiration Society

Regular readers of Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic know that Buster Bailey and Don Murray are two of its favorite subjects. Both were simply amazing clarinetists, gifted with a bright tone and a beautifully busy style, equally effective in solos, breaks and high-flying lines behind ensembles.  Benny Goodman admired the two of them and even shared a teacher with Buster Bailey.  Unfortunately Bailey and Murray remain amazingly underrated footnotes in jazz history.

Now, for some further critical vindication, here’s Ellington sax section anchor and baritone sax pioneer Harry Carney‘s thoughts on these musicians:

My first influences [on clarinet] were Buster Bailey with Fletcher Henderson, and Don Murray with Jean Goldkette. As a brash kid, I always wanted to play faster than anyone on clarinet, and both Buster and Don Murray were great technicians. Too bad I didn’t stick with them! Perhaps I’d be a clarinetist today. Buster has always sounded to me like a perfect man for the symphony, and on those up-tempo numbers with Fletcher Henderson he always showed what a well-schooled musician he was.

Apparently this blog keeps some sharp company in terms of taste!  More importantly, Carney reminds all of us to stay positive and to not be bashful with sincere compliments.  One never knows who, or when, someone is listening.

Harry Carney.  What an Ear!

Harry Carney

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Jazz Compositions and Contrafacts

The jazz contrafact, i.e a new composition written on the chord changes of another tune, is usually associated with post-war jazz. Beboppers superimposed dense riffs and angular melodies over popular standards, often adding then “unusual” chord substitutions that would eventually become standard operating vocabulary for jazz as we know it.

In the same spirit, Adrian Rollini and his colleagues in British bandleader Fred Elizalde’s ensemble get to recomposing “Nobody’s Sweetheart” right from the start of their record, and several years before Tadd Dameron and Miles Davis put pen to stave:

The opening ensemble turns Billy Meyers and Elmer Schoebel’s melody (already all too familiar even by 1929) into a completely new theme constructed out of tight, cool gestures. The format of horns stating a “head” followed by round-robin solos would become formula for the boppers, but at a time when collective improvisation and cross-sectional writing were just as prominent, it has the air of one refreshing approach among many. The solos present a variety of instrumental personalities, starting with Chelsea Quealey abstracting the melody further and ending with Rollini’s bass saxophone muscular and lithe all at once.

The execution is slightly different, but the principle has always remained the same.  Contrafacts have been around at least since some band got sick of playing “Tiger Rag” the same way over and over again (but we’ll save that long list for another day).

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Archaically Unique and Revealingly Outdated: The Joys of Musical Primitivism

This is a continuation of an earlier post, which I hope will encourage further discussion. Comments are welcome, greatly appreciated and humbly requested…

The earliest examples of any musical style, whether it’s hot jazz, Baroque or Bill Haley, live and die by history. The historically-minded listeners comprising classical and jazz audiences readily admit that “early music” got things to where they are now, just like the Model T made the Lamborghini possible. Yet most of them don’t like to drive anything that’s too old. Despite classic music being much easier and cheaper to experience than classic automobiles, it remains just as esoteric, and for many, just as outdated.

Unlike machines (or medicine, the law and late-night comedians), music doesn’t do anything better or worse over time; it just approaches melody, harmony, rhythm, form and other musical considerations differently. For example when it comes to instrumental interplay and tonal organization, Beethoven wrote more intricate chamber works than his predecessors, and Mozart more circumspect operatic works than his contemporaries. Them Austrian boys’ music is “better” for those seeking complexity or dramatic depth.

Boccherini and Paisiello, writing before Beethoven’s innovations and without the blessing or mutation that created Mozart, concern themselves with melody and directness.  Using just the meager notes they know, they still manage to make music:

Boccerhini: Sextet, Op. 23 No. 1 in E flat, 1. Allegro (Ensemble 415):

Paisiello: “Mi Palpita Il Cor” from ‘Il Mondo della Luna’ (Gloria Banditelli):

Similarly, Charlie Parker’s rhythm section handles their job in a very satisfying and very sophisticated, very specific manner:

Parker’s band epitomizes a concept of jazz rhythm that can be traced back to the revolution in swing started by Count Basie’s All-American rhythm section, was developed and deconstructed following the bop era and which has influenced jazz through to the present. The texture is spacious and airy, with accents that both support and pull at a smooth, even and relaxed beat. The musicians also interact with and respond to soloists, varying their patterns to add color.

Parker’s group does light and interactive really well, but what if the listener is looking for something else? They could check out The Missourians for some jazz that’s really different:

Pianist Earl Prince, banjoist Morris White, tuba player Jimmy Smith and drummer Leroy Maxey, like so many pre-swing rhythm sections, take their name very literally: they lay out the chords, bass line and ground rhythm, sticking to a punchy background role. Their goal is to create a stage of rhythm for the ensemble and soloists to play over, rather than an accompaniment that’s interesting in and of itself. Musicians who continue to play and find inspiration in this approach explain that supporting the band is the interesting part; locking into a groove and keeping it going for their partners is how they express themselves. That particular groove is not the smooth swing normally associated with jazz. Instead, it’s intense and earthy, based on a very uneven beat, with a chunky feel that give the listener something to bob their head to (sort of like late twenties funk).

In other words, The Missourians have a unique approach to rhythm, just as unique as the Parker rhythm section, or the Basie rhythm section, or the rhythm sections backing Bix Beiderbecke, Albert Ayler or Vijay Iyer. The Missourians’ approach only seems simple, “outdated” or “corny” when judged against a later standard, the equivalent of driving a Model T and expecting a V12 to kick in.

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The Crap of the Cream: A Jazz and Classical Lover’s Apology for Being a Musical Simpleton

This is meant to be the first part of a series of posts dealing with several topics that this writer has wanted to discuss here.  Comments are not only welcome, but kindly requested.

Roman Engraving of the Plebeian Class Waiting to Buy Tickets for Kenny G, or Maybe Mantovani

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with “theory.” As a student of philosophy and history, “theory,” a.k.a. literary theory or French theory, broadened (and occasionally complicated) matters, while as a music lover, “music theory” explained and simplified its subject, often to the point of reductionism.  Apply theory to Moby Dick and it becomes something more than a dense story. Apply theory to Vivaldi’s concertos or King Oliver’s blues, and they might seem like something far less than the sum of all their vivid parts.

While popular wisdom states that an appreciation for jazz and/or classical means a refined ear, over the years many theory experts, in both print and in person, have pointed out how most of the examples of “good music” that this blogger enjoys aren’t very musically sophisticated.  For example, Vivaldi is just repeating the same thing over and over again. There are no interesting modulations in his music, just tonic and dominant with an occasional relative minor. King Oliver is just playing what any other trumpeter could play, over a simple (read, “simplistic”) three-chord progression, no fast runs or innovative chord substitutions to be found. “It’s just a…” is a common phrase, as in “it’s just a ii-V-I,” or “it’s just a Phrygian cadence,” whittling down countless musical moments to their barest, most unremarkable essentials.

There’s no arguing with taste, but mocking it remains fair game. Without outright calling anyone a plebian, clever theory-lovers suggest that everyone is free to listen to what they want in the same way that people are free to enjoy reality television, fast food or tap water.

King Oliver and Vivaldi at least get historical street cred as stepping-stones to the advanced, intelligent music any smart listener should appreciate: in Oliver’s case, anything Louis Armstrong recorded before 1931 and in Vivaldi’s case, all the transcriptions Bach made of his music. Yet for many authorities (whether they have a book deal or not), listening to Buster Bailey, Cimarosa, Red Nichols, Salieri, the California Ramblers, Telemann and many other second-stringers is like ordering the meatloaf in a gourmet restaurant: they just never approach the pleasure and refinement of the other items on the menu. Some people may simply like meatloaf, but more importantly, perhaps the connoisseur is missing out on what those other dishes have to offer.

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