Tag Archives: Sidney Bechet

The Rest Of The Blue Five

Like Louis Armstrong with the Hot Five, for many listeners Sidney Bechet is the main—or sole—event with Clarence Williams’s Blue Five. Bechet remains one of the most important soloists in jazz’s early days. His technical brilliance, invention and sheer power made him a dominating presence with any ensemble. Close to a century later, Bechet still makes it easy to overlook the musicians around him. Yet he doesn’t always make it necessary.

“Wild Cat Blues” is the first and best-known of Bechet’s sides with the Blue Five, effectively an aria for his soprano saxophone. He likewise stalks over “Kansas City Man Blues” but there is also a cooperative element at work behind him when Tom Morris mutes his cornet:

Morris’s interjections were already tasteful and well-timed. With that soft, vocalistic muted tone, his spare comments now come across like talking drums. It creates a subtle but charming texture and shows an ensemble concept of the music, even if this is still Bechet’s show.

Morris gets more room on “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” actually playing lead and pulling out his specialty of contrasting an embellished melody on open horn with muted improvisation:

Morris’s entrance on mute is delightfully agitated, reveling in shades and growls. This man could play hot. The annals of jazz frequently describe Morris’s playing as “primitive, limited” and “old-fashioned.” It seems Morris was outmoded by the time he began to play on record, but close to a century later his simple but direct style and tense rhythmic concept are so retrograde they sound avant-garde. The music is “new-to-you” and won’t conk out (as long as it’s not loaded down with anachronistic hierarchies).

Even with Bechet back on lead for “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues,” Morris gets a passionate muted solo and trombonist Charlie Irvis also gets some spotlight:

Another New York jazz musician from before the southern musical invasion, Irvis was one of Duke Ellington’s earliest trombonists, a respected blues player and an originator of muted techniques with a major influence on Tricky Sam Nanton. Ellington praised Irvis’s “great, big, fat sound at the bottom of the trombone [that was] melodic, masculine [and] full of tremendous authority.” The rolling boogie-woogie underneath Irvis on “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues” complements that sound and his long, arching phrases. Rather than melodic embellishment or harmonic deconstruction of the tune, Irvis reincarnates it using just timbre.

Irvis’s melody chorus on “Oh Daddy! Blues,” with its sardonic tone and exaggerated legato, add another layer of color as well as irony, in turn picked up by Bechet for his chirping verse:

Morris is earnest by contrast until his break, which seems to say “not so much” to all the sentimentalism.

A simple melodic lead could be just as personal as an improvised solo. Morris makes “Shreveport Blues” his own with relaxed, powerful vocalizing as well as easygoing, well-constructed dialog with Bechet:

“Old Fashioned Love” features a more pacific Irvis and Bechet dancing around him:

Mark Berresford notes that recording engineers were subduing Bechet’s considerable audio presence as these sessions progressed, which may have made Bechet take his own playing down a notch. Bechet actually reveals himself as an inventive and stirring accompanist, even if the loud, broad sound of his soprano sax and his force of personality never stay entirely in the background. Throughout these sessions, Buddy Christian’s banjo is the rock of the rhythm section, and Clarence Williams’s self-effacing piano sometimes peeks in for a brief effect.

Louis Armstrong would eventually replace Tom Morris. These are the most well-known of the Blue Five sessions due to the gladiatorial exchanges between Armstrong and Bechet on tunes like “Texas Moaner Blues” and multiple takes of “Cake Walking Babies.” Yet these earlier Blue Five sides reveal wonderful ensemble details behind their star soloist. This is jazz made by sidemen rather than soloists, maybe not “artists” but certainly proud craftsmen. Musicians like Tom Morris and Charlie Irvis may have known who was in charge but apparently they did not see their role as perfunctory. They were professionals, after all.

Tom Morris (Photo Courtesy of All Music Guide)

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Noble Sissle On The Origins Of Bop, Rock And The Freedom Beat

Noble Sissle (left) with Eubie BlakeHere are some powerful musical and cultural insights from Noble Sissle, excerpted from a 1964 radio interview (transcribed in Record Research, issue 61, and generously reprinted on Ken McPherson’s excellent blog):

During the last [world] war, which was a long stretch, people didn’t stop to think what happened to the young boys of eighteen and nineteen. Before the war, when every thing [sic] was peaceful, all those boys thought about was baseball, basketball, football and the sportsmanship we know here in America. When you take these boys and make killers out of them for five years and then bring them back to society, for at least five years they are in a state of shock. Nothing appealed to them and above all they didn’t want any regimentation. After all, when you sing and dance, there is melody and rhythm. In the bop era, they didn’t want any melody and they didn’t want any rhythm…

Now then, what happened? The four and five year old kids who weren’t disturbed by the war still had that soulful, spiritual glow which is inborn in America. It hadn’t been damaged in them. When they came along and the bands played with no rhythm and the beat was gone and there was no melody, what did they do? They wrote their own songs and their lyrics were amateurish, of course. They weren’t Cole Porters and their melodies were built on one chord and sounded the same. But, bless their hearts, they brought the rhythm and the beat back to American expression of emotionalism.

As you know, it is the rhythm of America that has thrilled the hearts of people throughout the world. You will notice that the trend has changed: as these kids get old they want more rhythm, more melody and lyrics with more sense to them. I heard Ray Charles the other night with such a fine orchestral backing that Frank Sinatra or any other good singer would have sounded great in front of this musical setting. When that group of kids gets old enough, they will be dancing and the beat will come back. It shows what power there is to the American rhythm and our beat. I call it the Freedom Beat.

Sissle may not detect a melody or beat in modern jazz, but even bop’s most spirited advocates would agree with his description of a rebellion against regimentation, as well as the idea of a musical style reflecting its times. At the same time Sissle is refreshingly aware and even complimentary of present-day singers. Ultimately his “bless their hearts” isn’t meant to be condescending; he cares about music and he cares about people. He’s just happy the two still have something to say to one another.

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The Consequences of Freddie Keppard

Freddie Keppard’s entire discography fits on one compact disc. It’s an ironically modest recorded legacy, especially for someone who was known for everything but modesty in their lifetime.

By most accounts Keppard was proud to the point of arrogance. He came up through the ranks of New Orleans cornetists, drew crowds on the vaudeville circuit of both coasts and was more than willing to proclaim and demonstrate his musical prowess. A photograph of the cornetist, dressed smart but tough in double-breasted suit, wide brimmed Boss of the Plains Stetson and ornate lapel medal, looking out intently with a touch of haughtiness, provides a visual allegory of the musician that no less than Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet would praise years after his passing.

Keppard’s few recordings provide teasing glimpses of his huge sound and dominating style on cornet. In Keppard’s time jazz was still transitioning from collective ingredient to solo expression. The cornet was intended to provide a solid lead, with power and color supporting an ensemble. Extended solo outings, decorous lines and multi-chorus explorations wouldn’t come into play until one of Keppard’s younger New Orleans colleagues arrived on the scene.

In addition, most of Keppard’s recordings were cut with Doc Cooke‘s large dance orchestra, in which Keppard actually played the second horn part, not lead. Keppard’s role was to heat things up during an out chorus, or contribute intense but short breaks to Cooke’s written arrangements. Many of Keppard’s sides also suffer from the worst indignities of twenties audio technology. It’s a miracle anyone still cares about this loud-mouthed ensemble player.

True to reputation, Keppard demands attention. The Cooke band’s sides on Columbia Records’ certainly help: a pristine electric recording process and the diffuse acoustics of an empty hotel ballroom capture the Cooke band cutting loose on some of their hottest charts. Keppard’s brash interjection on the aptly named “High Fever” [at 0:23 in the following clip] doesn’t have anything to prove; though brief, its cocky stride tells the listener Keppard knows exactly “who he is”:

Following the piano solo, Keppard’s blasting riffs behind lead cornet Elwood Graham [at 1:07] might not provide the best instruction in providing accompaniment. Yet Keppard wasn’t there to teach or blend or simply be heard; his presence was meant to be felt. By the time the closing “dog fight” arrives [at 2:15], whatever name was written on the lead part becomes moot. This is Keppard’s tune, with driving phrases and an infectiously “funky” break [at 2:26] bringing it to a close.

Keppard isn’t doing much technically, but his impact on the Cooke band is immense. A few months later, he brings an equally gripping effect to the clean, almost concert band-like reading of the opening theme on “Sidewalk Blues,” an interpretation that he seems to self-parody and then detonate for the ride out [starting at 2:12 in this clip]:

Keppard’s hair-trigger change is the type of “sweet to hot” juxtaposition that twenties bandleaders loved to include in even their most straight-laced material. Yet Keppard’s changeover also reminds us of the brash, occasionally volatile personality he was known for. Perhaps his most powerful maneuver was turning down an offer from Victor Records to record in 1916. The reasons for Keppard’s refusal are now legend, ranging from a concern that listeners could “steal his stuff” to balking at having to record a test pressing without pay (standard operating procedure for record labels at the time).

Whatever his motivations, they point to a man who refused anything short of what he wanted. They also point towards the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s session of February 26, 1917, considered to be the first “jazz” recording ever made, courtesy of a group of “non-improvising White musicians” and an event still debated (and despised) on both musical and cultural grounds.

Whatever else might be said of Freddie Keppard’s music or his personality, even his smallest gestures had huge consequences.  He wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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Fat Girls, Brownies and Moldy Figs

The three of you that read this blog regularly (hi Mom!) might be surprised to hear that this writer also appreciates a new and wild style of jazz called “bebop, rebop, Chinese music” or simply “bop.”  It’s tempting to count decades, but the truth is that bop has remained perennially “modern” since it first emerged in the late forties.

For even the most casual listener, “jazz” is often defined by the sound of small groups featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane among other bop deities, and the recordings on Blue Note, Prestige, Atlantic and other musician-friendly labels of the fifties and early sixties.  The brains, balls and imagination of these players and this style almost make you forget about other approaches to jazz.

Almost.

Listening to trumpeter Clifford Brown with Max Roach and Sonny Rollins, his technique easily surpasses most players from the pre-WWII soundscape.  Brown tosses out long lines peppered with harmonic twists and rhythmic accents.  The tempos start at blistering and only go up from there. “Powell’s Prances,” “Kiss and Run” and the only modestly more laidback “Flossie Lou” all feature Brown breaking out of predictable two and four bar phrasing, leaping up to crackling high notes and apparently growing a third lung to pull off his flights.  Yet “Gertrude’s Bounce” impresses the most because Brown keeps its lighthearted sleigh bell swing even as he hangs fire. Brown is playing at a superhuman level of speed, power, precision and creativity while having a ball; this is just what he does naturally:

Perhaps even more astounding is how naturally Brown’s lithe yet warm tone comes through in everything he plays.  It can be hard to hear that tone at such high speeds and with so many notes, but it makes every other aspect of Brown’s technique that much more rewarding.  It’s also instantly recognizable, the same way Sidney Bechet or Bubber Miley’s tone could be picked out even before they spun a bluesy Rococo line, or growled out some gutbucket poetry.

Fats Navarro, Photo by Herman Leonard

The same goes for Brown’s inspiration, Fats Navarro, who relied less upon long, rapid-fire lines than his protégé (even if he demonstrated at dramatic points in his solos that he could pull them off too!).   Navarro’s pensive, angular improvisations with Tadd Dameron’s band are always built off a resplendent surface that could easily lead the brass section in a big band, or maybe a philharmonic.  Just like Bechet, Miley, Louis Armstrong, Wild Bill Davison or other greats from jazz’s early days, for “Fat Girl” and “Brownie” it all started with tone.

“Fat Girl.” “Brownie.” “Bubber.” “Wild Bill.” Don’t forget “Mezz,” “Bird,” “Satch” or “Dizzy.” The nicknames highlight the continuity of spirit, if not style, between jazz pre and post-bop.  Alongside the clear sense of self in their tone, there’s a sense of humor in how their colleagues identified them.  Even bop’s conservatory-trained firebrands learned to play jazz in the club, the same place earlier generation learned to play, as well as drink, smoke, etc.

Even for a moldy fig like me, it’s easy to appreciate bop, not to mention simply enjoy the hell out of it. Aside from its sheer visceral and creative drive, the best bop has plenty in common with all the “ancient” jazz that preceded it, though it’s helpful to appreciate their differences.

I wonder how Navarro would have handled Bubber Miley’s part on “Black and Tan Fantasy…”

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