Tag Archives: Ted Gioia

Finally, Bragging Rights

I was sharing unpopular opinions about jazz before it was cool
I’ll see your Keith Jarrett and raise you Ted Lewis, whose singing I absolutely and unironically enjoy very much. King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators is even more “dope” than his Creole Jazz Band. The clarinet never needed a comeback, because it never went away, but wait until bands go back to brass basses instead of string ones.


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Kuhn’s History Of Jazz

kuhncoverThomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions suggests that natural science operates according to, and periodically discards, paradigms unique to a historical and material setting. For Kuhn, the information contained in a chemistry textbook doesn’t represent the objective accretion of truth but is a work of its time, as much determined by external contingencies and human “idiosyncrasies” as it is by research and experimentation. In other words science is constructed, not necessarily discovered and definitely not already out there waiting to be revealed by scientists.

This complex (even when stripped down to three sentences by a sub-amateur) claim may sound like an odd fit for empirical investigation but might be useful for artistic ones. Kuhn’s idea of a “paradigm,” the “models from which spring particular coherent traditions,” is already standard in a variety of disciplines. When Scott DeVeaux, in “Constructing The Jazz Tradition,” asserts “from textbook to textbook, there is a substantive agreement on the defining features of each style, pantheon of great innovators and canon of recorded masterpieces,” he is essentially describing a paradigm. The way that DeVeaux and other jazz scholars such as Kenneth E. Prouty discuss The Smithsonian Collection Of Jazz, it may be the first downloadable paradigm.

The word “music” appears only once in Kuhn’s essay and he doesn’t even mention “jazz.” “Science” is of course used many times but “history” is mentioned nearly as often. If Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn can shed some light on the current state of jazz, then perhaps Kuhn can illuminate its past.

1. The Structure Of Jazz Revolutions
2. How To Hear Bubbles
3. The Jazz Of History

The Structure Of Jazz Revolutions

Unsurprisingly, Kuhn also frequently references “revolution.” According to Kuhn, revolutions occur when “existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created,” and they can overtake governments as well as scientific paradigms. Defining “institutions” in a broader sense, for example as the stylistic and professional practices that a working musician operates within, or replacing “institutions” with “big bands arrangements, chordal improvisation, the American popular songbook” or a similar idea, and Kuhn’s scientific or political “problem” could easily be a musical “issue.”

For example, the issue of improvisation within the context of swing big bands in the forties has been well documented by jazz historians. At that time, in that musical setting, musicians who excelled at or enjoyed ensemble work could thrive while aspiring soloists lacked the same opportunities. From its beginnings jazz has increasingly relied upon rhythmic displacement, paraphrase, variation and other aspects of improvisation. Jazz also entered American popular music at virtually the same time it coalesced into a recognizable idiom. Yet as Ted Gioia points out in The Imperfect Art, improvisation “has never been the public’s cup of tea, and since [Louis] Armstrong improvisation has slowly come to dominate jazz.”

To his credit, Kuhn even seems to describe musicians chafing under what they felt as constraints during the big band era and the feelings that led to musical revolution. When Kuhn describes how “individuals become increasingly estranged from political life and behave more and more eccentrically within it,” replace “political” with “big band” or “studio” and you can practically hear Roy Eldridge’s high notes, Art Tatum’s dense runs or Dizzy Gillespie playing “Chinese music” when Cab Calloway wasn’t around. There was bound to be tension between jazz and popular music but the consequences of that tension were never written in stone.

Kuhn explains that “as in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community.” Within the jazz community of the forties, the needs of a specific group of musicians, those who identified “jazz” primarily with solo improvisation as well as greater harmonic and rhythmic complexity (rather than melodic refinement, collective participation or danceability) were not being met. The bop revolution was not just a rejection of prevailing norms but also a redefinition of “jazz.” For these players, jazz could/should be a vehicle for the soloist, exploring sophisticated technical and music ideas, playing for listeners and not dancers, front and center, left to do their own thing (perhaps more admirable when it was actually in front of an empty room). That thing caught on, while ensemble conceptions of jazz or ones that eschew progressive harmonic or rhythmic ideas are still often associated with musical archaism or popular concession.

Ted Gioia, writing in The Imperfect Art, summed up the culmination of the forties young lions’ stance on improvisation in 1988:
Yet improvisation, if not restricted to jazz, is nonetheless essential to it. [Jelly Roll] Morton’s music, as well as that of other early jazz masters-Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and their contemporaries-reflects its central role. More than any of these artists’ compositional or technical innovations, improvisation remains today the most distinctive element of a jazz performance-so much that a jazz instrumentalist is evaluated almost entirely on his ability as a soloist.
To most of the jazz community, Gioia’s description no doubt still sounds like a teleological end. Decades of not only experiencing jazz from a specific lens but looking back on its past through that lens can make the music of Fletcher Henderson’s pre-Armstrong orchestra, the Original Memphis Five, the John Kirby Sextet and others sound frustratingly different rather than refreshingly unique. Contemporary musicians playing in that style may receive praise but rarely without a sense that they are a niche rather than an aspect of the jazz mainstream. Did Steve Greenlee’s review of The Fat Babies’ new album in JazzTimes have to begin with a reference to “museums”? Is that the only band that draws inspiration from earlier sources?

Kuhn’s description of revolutionary-era societies “divided into competing camps or parties, one seeking to defend the old institutional constellation, the others seeking to institute some new one” is a fair description for the stylistic tug of war in the postwar jazz community (and maybe now). Yet the “old” camp was not simply defending the status quo or taking a reactionary stance. It found great expressive potential in those older/other idioms. If those practitioners ever saw their music as a commercial compromise, that just aligned with their goal of reaching as broad an audience as possible. Reading Thomas Brothers’s explanation that “Natty Dominique believed that all New Orleans musicians were entertainers first” alongside Garvin Bushell noting how Johnny and Baby Dodds both “regarded themselves as artists,” Gioia’s description of “an artistic force freed from the confining bonds of mass appeal” begins to sound subjective, maybe over-determined.

Decades of the soloist-centered, artist-centered concept of jazz as the mostly undisputed norm disguise the fact that it was the result of what one part of the jazz community wanted, assisted by some extra-musical forces. Kuhn suggests that to understand any revolution one must “examine not only the impact of nature and logic but also the technologically persuasive argument.” In the case of jazz during the forties, calling anything “modern” and therefore defining it in opposition to “traditional, old guard” or just “old” is still a persuasive device. Younger players describing the older New Orleans style as “nursery rhymes,” rebranding jazz musicians as artists rather than entertainers and the emphasis on identity politics all helped one camp’s views to ascend based on far more than pitches and rhythms.

The idea of something other than music shaping the course of music is not groundbreaking. Kuhn noting that “an apparently arbitrary element, compounded of personal historical accident, is always a formative ingredient of the beliefs espoused by a given…community” sounds a lot like Marc Myers’s point that “events unrelated to the music or the artists have influenced the emergence and direction of major jazz styles.” Kuhn’s point may have been shocking to scientists in 1962 but not to political, social or art historians in 2014. Replace “scientific” with “musical” and Kuhn might as well be describing innovations in recording technology, the musicians’ strikes of the forties or other factors now clearly articulated by Myers in his Why Jazz Happened.

Yet beyond those parallels, the arbitrary nature of any change makes it harder to take its results for granted. For example the fall of the three-minute jazz recording may have been a technological inevitability but not a musical one. Plenty of jazz musicians of the LP era kept their performances under five minutes. There were (and remain) alternatives to the dozen-chorus model of jazz improvisation. Yet the effects of this technological event are now treated as the raison d’être of jazz and viewed as a step in “freeing” jazz musicians to express themselves. Today’s listeners can not only hear chorus after chorus of improvisation from their musical idols but expect as much if the music is categorized “jazz.”

MichelangeloCreationOfSunAndMoonFromSistineChapelDiscussing the effects of “writing history backwards,” Kuhn describes the tendency to “refer only to that part of the work of past scientists that can easily be viewed as a contribution to the statement and solution of the text’s paradigm problems.” A little catachresis (“musician” for scientist, “style, genre” or even “listeners” or “critics” for “problems”) makes Kuhn’s description resemble the great man, X begat Y model of so many jazz histories. Critics listen to King Oliver to hear what Louis Armstrong learned from him and historians pick out parts of Don Redman arrangements that dovetail with contemporary understanding of a jazz big band. Vestigial ideas such as Oliver’s novelty effects or Redman’s clarinet trios and creative musicians who didn’t found a school of influence such as Don Murray or Johnny Dunn are either ignored or classified “not jazz.”

When John McDonough describes Earl Hines’s late twenties band in terms of “thin saxophone voicings and an arthritic two-beat, banjo-tuba rhythm section that trapped soloists (Hines included) in a vocabulary of quarter notes” before its “breakthrough” incorporation of string bass in 1932, McDonough evaluates his subject according to a standard that had not yet been established in its own context. According to this analytical model, early jazz is only worthwhile according to its resemblance to what we recognize in the present day. It’s the equivalent of criticizing Michelangelo’s works because of their religious emphasis and suggesting that he should have done more protest art.

This model overlooks the fact that early jazz musicians players were, in Kuhn’s words, not “working upon the same set of fixed problems [i.e. musical concepts] and in the same set of fixed canons” as contemporary jazz musicians. Tubas and three-part sax sections may or may not have been economic or acoustic compromises in their town time. Yet rather than understanding what the early Hines band made possible with those supposed compromises, this critical position attempts to locate the point at which the band started to get it “right” according to present standards. If this model were applied to discussions of modern piano’s place in Western classical music or pre versus post-electrically amplified guitar, it would generate a very sleek but one-sided picture of the topic.

How To Hear Bubbles

If this type of analysis were limited to jazz critics and textbook writers it might seem like an academic problem. Yet Kuhn even seems to describe the impressive but blandly uniform virtuosity of many young players that is debated time and time again in jazz circles. If the jazz student “joins men who learned the bases of their field from the same concrete models [and] his subsequent practice will seldom evoke overt disagreement over fundamentals” it might preclude productive debates about those fundamentals and their alternatives.

Kuhn also points out “unless he has experienced a revolution in their lifetime, the historical sense of the working scientist [read ‘musician’ or ‘musicologist’] or lay reader of textbook literature [‘clubgoer’] extends only to the outcome of the most recent revolutions in the field.” Jazz musicians, especially the elder statesmen, aren’t getting any younger. Without any living links to what it was like to play jazz before Bird, Coltrane, or Esperanza, some pedagogy must be in place to demonstrate that there was, and still can be, such a thing.

Young jazz players still diligently practice Bird heads and “Giant Steps,” and many explore R&B, hip-hop, world and other genres. Yet the ones practicing tailgate trombone or Coleman Hawkins’s “Stampede” solo are fewer and far between. How much exposure do students at The New School receive to Jelly Roll Morton or Fud Livingston’s works? How many Berklee students play in ensembles for ragtime, classic blues, New Orleans collective improvisation, Chicago style, hot dance or any of the other prewar, so-called “Dixieland” idioms? The “decade-defined periods” and “logical, flowing developmental narrative” that Kenneth E. Prouty critiques in his “Towards Jazz’s ‘Official’ History: The Debates And Discourses Of Jazz History’s ‘Textbooks’” allows a neat package that leaves out a lot of nuance.

bubblechamberimageKuhn even offers some comments about scientists’ work that sound uncannily like many criticisms leveled at contemporary jazz:
No longer will his researches [read one’s own pick of “improvisations, compositions” or “gigs”] be …addressed…to anyone who might be interested in the subject matter of this field. Instead…addressed only to professional colleagues, the men whose knowledge of a shared paradigm can be assumed and who prove to be the only ones able to read the papers [read “hear all of the notes, understand the harmonic sophistication or complex meters”].
The phrase “music for musicians” can seem like a cliché in jazz discussions but is hard to ignore given the very specific background and training needed to perform many types of contemporary jazz. Kuhn describes how “looking at a bubble-chamber photograph, the student sees confused and broken lines, the physicist a record of familiar subnuclear events. Only after a number of such transformations of vision does the student become an inhabitant of the scientist’s world, seeing what the scientist sees and responding as the scientist does.” In a jazz, the question is how much of a student does a listener have to become just to appreciate or even enjoy the music?

The Jazz of History

Whether he intended to or not, Kuhn offers an alternative that might serve music historians, students and listeners well. Instead of the accretion model that merely discards older paradigms, Kuhn praises historians who evaluate paradigms within their own framework and understand the needs that that those concepts were responding to:
Rather than seeking the permanent contributions of an older science to our present vantage, they attempt to display the historical integrity of that science in its own time. They ask, for example, not about the relation of Galileo’s views to those of modern science, but rather about the relationship between his views and those of his group, i.e. his teachers, contemporaries, and immediate successors…they insist upon studying the opinions of that group and other similar ones from the viewpoint-usually very different from that of modern science-that gives those opinions the maximum internal coherence…
Musical analogs to this approach are easy to imagine but returning to the earlier example of improvisation, its reduced role in many pieces of earlier jazz may now seem like shortchanging the soloist. Eight-bar hot solos in the midst of countless dance band records cause many listeners to imagine frustrated musicians wishing for more room and to wonder what their idols might have sounded like if they were “really” allowed to perform. The idea that improvisation was an ingredient rather than the substance of jazz at that time and that jazz musicians found value in written parts as well as ad-libbed won’t change contemporary tastes, but it might shift understanding. The question stops being whether Phil Napoleon or Buster Bailey could do what Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker do, but whether they ever thought to do it, or even wanted to.

Assuming that, as Kuhn does, “earlier generations pursued their own problems with their own instruments and own canons,” in other words treating the past like an end rather than a step, history can seem like its own unique bundle of possibilities. Surprisingly, it begins to resemble Kuhn’s description of a post-revolutionary viewpoint, where one is “transported to another planet where familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well.” Drug companies or rocket scientists might not want to conduct research using past theories but Kuhn’s approach could be incredibly rewarding for open-minded jazz lovers.

For one last game of wordplay, see Kuhn’s characterization of Robert Boyle:
He was a leader of a scientific revolution that, by changing the relation of “element” to chemical manipulation and chemical theory, transformed the notion into a tool quite different from it had been before and transformed both chemistry and the chemist’s word…”
Try changing “Boyle” to “Armstrong,” “element” to “improvisation,” “scientific” to “musical” and anything related to chemistry with a term related to jazz. Perhaps a silly exercise but one that yields an accurate statement. Unlike science, in jazz there is no need to choose between pre and post-Armstrong, Parker, Coltrane, Davis, Payton, Iyer, etc. paradigms. It really is just music.

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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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My Favorite “Ain’t Misbehavin'”

Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography lists over one thousand recordings of “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Pretty good for a song that Ted Gioia explains is ”not quite as important a part of the jazz repertoire nowadays as it once was.”

It is true that beboppers, post-boppers, free-jazzers, fusionites and other modernists never really cozied up to the Fats Waller standard. That still leaves a who’s-who of prewar and prewar-influenced jazz musicians to give it a shot. Yet even with Louis Armstrong’s magisterial interpretations, the composer’s own performances and pianists from Jelly Roll Morton and Art Tatum through Dick Hyman and Jeff Barnhart to choose from, I keep coming back to the Charleston Chasers’ “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

In fact the the Original Memphis Five working under an alias that Columbia records used for several bands, the Charleston Chasers waxed their version at the height of the song’s popularity. Waller had written “Ain’t Misbehavin’” for the revue Hot Chocolates, where it soon became a feature for Louis Armstrong and eventually the most famous part of the show. The Chasers recorded the tune about a year later, and just a few weeks before Armstrong made his own recording (skip ahead to 0:48 in the following clip to hear the music):

This arrangement never entirely settles, and that’s what makes it so interesting. The Chasers’ two-beat amble has its own magnetic energy, but their rhythm is a little overly delineated. Phil Napoleon’s trumpet is typically crisp yet slightly tense: his high notes during the introduction sound forced while the turnaround notes in the first chorus are hesitant. There’s a carefulness to the Chasers’ playing, the sound of a band feeling their way through a brand new composition.

NapoleonThey’re also figuring out what to “do” with this new song,  adding some highly original touches to make it their own. The Chasers feature a standard front line of trumpet, trombone and clarinet, but clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey lays low during the ensembles to let Napoleon and his frequent OM5 partner Miff Mole fashion brass duets. Napoleon and Mole were already seasoned jazz musicians, developing in tandem with the music from its earliest roots in ragtime. The pair displays a refreshingly harder-edged sound and play busier, punchier lines than most of their New Orleans colleagues. Napoleon and Mole even switch roles following the vocal, with muted trumpet decorating the trombone’s burry lead.  Eva Taylor’s vocal is charming but Arthur Schutt’s elegant accompaniment behind her is the real find.  His classical allusions also turn the minor chords of the bridge into miniature Rachmaninoff preludes. Joe Tarto’s bass keeps snapping throughout while Dorsey’s whinnies add a humorous symmetry to the whole thing.

This performance is a departure from the jamming and stride theatrics now typically associated with “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” It’s also far removed from the weight of history and sense of familiarity attached to even the most relaxed renditions of this song. This was only the fourth recording in the history of Waller’s iconic tune. If it shows its age, that age offers a completely unique experience.

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