Tag Archives: Brian Harker

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.

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Lester, Bobby And The Story Of Improvisation

LesterYoungCareOfRicoReedsBlogspotLester Young’s description of how Frank Trumbauer “always told a little story” through his music is the type of quietly stated but philosophically explosive idea that was bound to change everything.

Young was probably not the first person to use the term “story.” He was certainly not the first musician to conceive of a jazz solo as a coherent narrative implying something beyond notes and rhythms (though his words, like his music, perfectly express that concept). Whenever the metaphor first appeared or whoever first began “telling stories,” before Young, Trumbauer and maybe even Louis Armstrong, the idea has not only stuck but has become synonymous with jazz improvisation.

Solos are often described in terms of their “beginning, climax” and “conclusion.” Even the most diehard free jazz player will mention a desire to “communicate” with the listener. Describing a musician as “just playing notes” often means that their playing lacks something crucial. It’s a popular way to dismiss players or entire styles, indicating that whatever else “jazz” means, it is about “saying something.” What young Lester Young described as a new possibility now seems like the only way to play jazz.

The analogy between a jazz solo and a story has also inspired enough thought and ink to fill books such as Sven Bjerstedt’s Storytelling In Jazz Improvisation. The Swedish scholar considers and dissects this metaphor using sources ranging from hermeneutic philosopher George Gadamer to the contemporary Swedish jazz scene, across more than three-hundred meticulously cited and often dense (but not impenetrable) pages. Even if you don’t have the inclination to read or the time to finish it, the mere existence of Bjerstedt’s book illustrates the ubiquity and impact of the storytelling metaphor.

Ironically, while reading Bjerstedt’s thesis I wasn’t thinking about Young, Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker or even Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and other players considered “storytellers.” Instead, I could not stop playing Bobby Davis’s music.

Bobby Davis never led his own date and practically vanished from disographical and historical records after the early thirties, passing away fairly young in 1949. Yet he was prominent as both a soloist and an ensemble player with the California Ramblers in all their pseudonymous glory during the twenties. Eugene Chadbourne’s All Music Guide entry on Davis describes “a brilliant multi-instrumentalist” and Richard Sudhalter credits Davis’s “bright-toned and upbeat” clarinet and alto saxophone at several points in his landmark Lost Chords. Hundreds of sides feature Davis playing an intense, personal style that I would never describe as telling a story.

Instead, Davis’s solos careen every which way except straightforward. He plays in the arpeggio-rooted manner of many pre-swing reed players but his “saw tooth” lines are especially jagged, for example on “Wang Wang Blues”:

It’s not Davis’s tone, which is actually quite smooth if occasionally (and delightfully) nasal, adding that spiky atmosphere. Nor is it his frequent recourse to broken chords; Davis keeps returning to the top of a new phrase before letting the last one finish, like starting down a new stairway before getting to the bottom of another. If you had to make a literary analogy, it might be to some William S. Burroughs cut and paste outing, but if anything Davis conjures an M.C. Escher landscape reimagined by John Held.

This overtly “vertical” style is now written off as amateurish and unimaginative, yet taken on its own terms it generates plenty of energy and frenzied charm. Jazz is now often praised for its ability to move hearts and minds, yet listening to Davis on “Hot Henry” with the Little Ramblers or his two solos on “Alabamy Bound” with the Goofus Five, it’s worth reassessing the music’s power to move bodies:

Even when Davis hews closer to the melody, frequently on the first chorus of records such as “Tomorrow Morning,” he launches into ecstatic asides that don’t just decorate the theme but collide with it sideways:

His licks, though harmonically correct and rhythmically in step, sometimes sound completely unrelated to the melody. His breaks are just that, splintering off from the line, as for example on “She Loves Me” with the Varsity Eight:

On “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night,” with the Five Birmingham Babies, he’s wobbly and angular all at once, a funhouse distortion of the melody that comes teasingly close to throwing out the theme altogether:

Even on the relaxed, relatively straight-laced “Deep Sea Blues” with the same group, there remains a sense of disconnected phrasing:

Many soloists are praised for their “seamless” legato, and Sudhalter points to Trumbauer’s occasional influence on Davis. Yet for the most part Davis indulges in seams, sudden twists and turns that may seem superfluous, or can be heard as exercises in disconnection, a reveling in choppiness and unpredictability. Davis ups the ante on a slightly faster version of “Deep Sea Blues” with the Goofus Five, chopping the melody to pieces with some angular ornamentation (and a few wrong notes):

Davis builds a peculiar, very powerful tension between the written melody and his interpretation of it. This is not the warm, well-wrought approach of Louis Armstrong, who could take his own paring down of a song and make it fit the tune like a glove, or the flurrying personalizations of Coleman Hawkins or Charlie Parker, with those long, twisting runs between phrases that sound like part of the sheet music. It’s also not the wide-open, relentlessly individualistic flights on blank canvas of many free or avant-garde players. There’s an eschewal of story at work in Davis’s playing, that of both the composer and the performer.

If Davis sounds scattered, it was probably by design. Variety was paramount for pre-Armstrong jazz musicians. Brian Harker cites trumpeter Louis Panico’s advice that “never more than two measures of similarity be used” and to incorporate a “new idea about every other measure.” Panico, writing in 1923, describes an approach still prevalent during the mid to late twenties, even as a young trumpeter from New Orleans (perhaps among others) offered an alternative. As opposed to this “patchwork” aesthetic, Harker explains the revolution that was/is Louis Armstrong:

[Armstrong] rejected the prevailing standard of novelty that encouraged a rambling, disjointed rhetoric in order to provide a more or less constant sense of the unexpected. In its place he substituted a structural conception that later musicians would identify with telling a story.

VaristyEightCareOf78recordsDOTwordpressHarker’s elegant summary, also cited by Bjerstedt, places two concepts of a jazz solo next to one another. It’s easy to hear terms such as “rambling” and “disjointed” as pejoratives but worth remembering that we’re hearing those terms long after the other concept won out. It’s no small wonder that the storytelling model of a jazz solo seems like a stretch when applied to Bobby Davis’s music. Instead of coherence, Davis emphasizes variety. Instead of narrative, he works in collage. In place of allusion, he provides non sequitur. Rather than telling a story or drawing a portrait, at most Davis provides a few Rorschach blurs.

Either the moldy fig or the contrarian in me (perhaps one and the same) couldn’t stop thinking about Davis’s music while reading Bjerstedt’s thesis. That music comes from before the storytelling model as well as later rejections of it. It’s completely removed from what most jazz musicians and listeners have taken for granted over several decades. There are now several options for Davis’s music, or that of Panico, Don Murray, Buster Bailey, Bill Moore, Woody Walder and others: reduce it to a nostalgic experience, write it off as a misstep on the way to some supposed jazz teleology or explore it as some vestigial limb of jazz.  Personally, I just hear another approach to playing a jazz solo.

I also hear a refreshing lack of pretense in Davis’s playing. I don’t hear a storyteller, a spontaneous composer, a sensitive artist or a pensive experimenter.  There is no story or deep sentiment at work, just pitch, rhythm, harmony, timbre and other sounds, left to their own devices, freed from encumbrances such as  dramatic arch and emotional expression, exploding in real time over a danceable beat, never reminding me of anything else, not needing to reference anything but themselves and never taking themselves too seriously. It’s just another way of doing things, even if it doesn’t make a good story.

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The Vindication of Woody Walder

Woody Walder Wails (and Then Some) on Clarinet

Woody Walder didn’t so much play the clarinet as deploy it.  His solos with Bennie Moten’s band are closer to sonic found art sculptures than the poems, speeches and epigrams of his Jazz Age colleagues.  Walder pieced together squeals, squeaks, whinnies, whines and cries, sometimes through the insertion of foreign objects into the bell of his instrument, other times with just his mouthpiece.  The effect (Walder seemed all about effect) could be humorous or disturbing, at times grating, but was always surprising.

Walder’s particular sound of surprise hasn’t served his legacy well. Most jazz historians locate Walder’s playing somewhere between a tolerable novelty of the times or a now dated commercial evil, perhaps higher than comb playing and barnyard theatrics, but far below the fine art of plunger-muted brass.

Courtesy of chaka85.wordpress.com

It’s a pity Walder missed out on noise music, the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s experiments or the deliberately nasal, percussive and off-pitch curveballs of the World Saxophone Quartet.  The avant-garde as well as Walder and contemporaries such as Fess Williams (and even King Oliver at his onomatopoeic) all relished vocally inflected, “unmusical,” weird and occasionally cacophonous sounds.  Apparently Walder’s mistake was doing it for a willing and wide audience.

It’s best to listen to Walder on his own terms, neither as historical victim or stylistic precursor, but simply as a musician playing on a record.  Better yet, forget the man and just listen to the wholly unique, singularly “ugly” sounds twisting pitch and time on “Elephant’s Wobble,” “Thick Lip Stomp” and “Yazoo Blues.”  If you’re craving context, listen to how Walder’s solo on “Midnight Mama” at times resembles a hybrid of Rex Stewart’s half-valving and Bubber Miley’s gutbucketing, transplanted to Eric Dolphy’s honking, metallic reed.   It’s a hell of an act, or art, if you’re into that sort of thing.

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