Tag Archives: hot 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.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Advertisements