Monday, 6 December 2010
In Europe they were gearing up for another war. In America millions were still out of work. One industry that didn’t feel the effects of the Great Depression however was radio. As soon as radios and jukeboxes began playing swing, record sales increased exponentially. The embryonic big band sound first heard being played by the orchestras of Fletcher Henderson and Paul Whiteman was now reaching maturity by the mid 1930’s – and a lot of ears. As the music became more popular so too did the demand for more material. More compositions were being written down and sold. (This had the side effect though of frustrating a lot of musicians who became tired of playing the same things night after night.) People were saving their pennies to hear the bands that were criss-crossing the countries on one night stands. And they wanted to dance. Big bands were now becoming household names – names like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James and Glenn Miller.
"Swing music was an electrifying development in American popular culture. It... unleashed forces that, I think, people didn't know existed. There had been dance bands, sweet bands, sentimental bands. But when Benny Goodman reached those kids at the Palomar ballroom in California, it was like 20 years later with rock and roll... he was playing a swinging rough music that had been played in black communities for years. Ellington, you know, wrote It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got that Swing three years earlier and Chick Webb's band was doing it and Fletcher Henderson's... it swept the country. It was, it unleashed some kind of pent up...excitement and, and, and physicality that I think nobody was quite prepared for... And, also, this was the Depression. It was not an easy period. And this was a music that was just pure pleasure. Pure physical pleasure."
The sound of jazz music was changing. Vocalists were coming to the fore. It was at this time that renowned vocalists like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald were becoming noticed. The music was becoming more refined and the solos employed were infinitely more expressive and colourful. The catalogue of talented musicians that emanated from this period is impressive. Their instruments were evolving and providing a rich palette from which they could express themselves – the drum was no longer a simple time keeper – Gene Krupa, Chick Webb and Buddy Rich saw to that. Trumpet players were mixing the influences of Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke to create their own sounds. The guitar was now becoming electrified and added another element to the developing sounds. Finally, the saxophone, once a novelty instrument was becoming the dominant one in the hands of Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Chu Berry and Lester Young.
I personally have mixed feelings about the music from this time. Some of the stuff that I’ve listened to and will expand on further in the blog is sublime. However for me 1930’s swing doesn’t tick all the boxes. Some of it hasn’t stood the test of time and there is a sense that some of it is rather corny. Like the films that came out of that era – you could watch some of them over and over again, whereas others haven’t aged well at all. The big band sound can, on its own, seem rather stuffy. However, on the up side, it did find a great home with vocalists, in my opinion. The Rat Pack sound of Las Vegas obviously finds its roots here and the likes of Sammy Davis Jr and Frank Sinatra optimised the big band feel in a way that their songs actually get better over time.
This was the period though that jazz was becoming truly adventurous.
Monday, 22 November 2010
By 1935, Swing was king. It was around this time right up until the end of WWII that jazz was (for the only time in its history) the pop music of the day. Sweet jazz standards were becoming old fashioned and the Depression ravaged country was crying out for the foot tapping tunes that were being developed in the all night bars of Kansas City. Of course the notions of swing and groove in jazz were not new. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington had been pioneers of this form of jazz since the early 1920’s. However the USA was still a deeply segregated country and it took people like Benny Goodman to give jazz an “acceptable” white face – perhaps in much the same way that Elvis Presley and Bill Haley did for rock n roll twenty years later. Which is not to take away from the talents of these men, of course.
The sound of jazz was becoming a lot more sophisticated. The string rhythm section was being abandoned in favour of the more polished sound of walking bass and ride cymbal drums. The tenor sax and the piano were coming more to the fore. The heavy handed stride piano style was now out of vogue in favour of a more airy style – perhaps best demonstrated by Count Basie.
From New Jersey, he was there during the Harlem Renaissance days in the 1920’s and was influenced by many of the famous acts of the time – especially piano players like Willie “The Lion” Smith and James P Johnson. He toured the country in the late 20’s and hooked up with bassist Walter Page and vocalist Jimmy Rushing and became the pianist in Bennie Moten’s band in Kansas City. The Count Basie Orchestra began to take shape around the mid 1930’s with the valuable addition of tenor saxophonist, Lester Young. One late night improv session in Kansas City gave rise to his signature tune, One O’Clock Jump.
There is no doubt that Basie's sound was heavily blues based. The seeds of rock n roll were truly planted at the time his orchestra was becoming prominent in the late 1930's. His band were very talented individuals who made full use of the "head arrangement" style - from guitarist Freddie Greene and drummer Jo Jones to Sonny Payne and Roy Eldridge, later.
As a band leader, Basie’s career spanned from the 1930’s to the 1980’s. He was associated with a veritable who’s who of music in that time, from Duke Ellington to Ella Fitzgerald. His music was an obvious pre cursor for the Las Vegas Rat Pack sound that was to launch the careers of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. His music defines what was cool about pre war swing and jazz.
Here are some of Count Basie’s albums to look out for. (Again this is a mere sample of the good stuff. Basie’s recording career spanned many decades)
The Complete Atomic Basie (1958)
Count Basie At Newport (1957)
Chairman Of the Board (1959)
First Time! The Count Meets The Duke (1961)
April In Paris (1956)
Monday, 15 November 2010
Wednesday, 18 August 2010
Thursday, 12 August 2010
Kansas City from the mid 1920’s to the end of the 1930’s was a melting pot akin to what Storyville was in New Orleans at the turn of the century. It is at this time that KC becomes a major factor in the development of jazz. Perhaps it was the hardships of the Great Depression that turned people away from the popular sweet dance tunes of the time to the more sexually unabashed rawness of what was to become “swing” music and, from 1935 to the end of World War II, the only time in its history that jazz was the popular music of the day. KC seems to have been the most natural place for this to happen – and probably because of one man, Tom Pendergast.
Tom Pendergast was not a jazz musician. He was the Democratic Boss of Jackson County who shaped the fortunes of KC and its surroundings from 1926 right through the 1930’s. He was no doubt corrupt, with powerful mob ties but, along with his ownership if the Ready Mixed Concrete Company, he ensured that his city and county would benefit from a massive public works program that went in some way to insulating them from the effects of the Wall Street Crash. His connections with the police department ensured that Prohibition was essentially null and void – not one conviction was made under the Volstead Act during his reign. Contrast this with the 27,301 convictions made in the rest of the country between 1920 and 1933.
Thus Kansas City was to become the place to be. There were bars and nightclubs everywhere, most notably at 18th Street and Vine, that stayed open all night. This is an important factor that goes hand in hand with the style of music that was developing in KC at this time – the idea of forming songs from riffs and giving the rhythm section a whole lot more responsibility that freed up the saxophonists and pianists to improvise more. This is the time when the walking bass comes to the fore, essentially making the stride piano form redundant. A lighter, airier piano style was now complemented by a new style of drumming, where the drummer would keep time on the ride cymbal, not the snare. I personally have played gigs in bars that have gone on into the wee small hours. After your original material has been exhausted you are forced to become a little more innovative and it’s surprising the amount of new music that can come from a long jam session (with the wheels of inspiration being highly lubricated!)
The man synonymous with the evolution of Kansas City jazz was Bennie Moten. Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra was the most popular jazz band in what was known as the “territories”, and over its existence it incorporated a who’s who of Kansas City jazz men, most notably Count Basie. Recordings made by the band from 1929 to 1932 are a clear demonstration of how the music was evolving. Here’s “New Vine Street Blues”. The style is very much of the 1920’s with a tuba providing the bass lines.
A few years later Moten hired Walter Page, who is regarded as a pioneer of the walking style bass. ( Here is an article about Page and his band The Blue Devils) Check out "Moten Swing” from 1932, with Page on bass and Count Basie on the piano. Contrast this with the previous song – here the rhythm section is a lot more controlled and fluid, a precursor to the swing explosion that was to happen in a few years
Here's a video with some commentary on Kansas City jazz and Tom Pendergaast.
Wednesday, 11 August 2010
Big bands were prominent in the 1920's. However in stylistic terms they tended to play more popular "sweet" tunes than what is strictly known as jazz. They very much stuck to the melody as written and as such there was very little room for improvisation.
As an example here's the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, an extremely popular big band.
Jazz had reached something of a crossroads by 1929 - 1930. Louis Armstrong had lifted the bar significantly and all musicians that came after him had to live in his shadow. I would argue therefore that the music evolved in a positive direction - you really had to be good to cut it. There was also the rise of the radio - jazz could now be heard outside of the main cities and as such spread across the country sparking huge interest in Kansas City and all the way to Los Angeles.
However the main event that was to shape the music was indoubtedly the Wall Street Crash. In simplistic terms it saw the collapse of the U.S. economy which resulted in millions becoming unemployed. This of course included musicians and a number of notable examples were not to survive the crash, including Freddie Keppard, King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton. A direct result saw the consolidation of musicians into bigger bands that was to have an sonic effect on the music. The big bands moved away from the sweet sound of the mid 20's towards a more authentic form of jazz. It is around this time that we see the emergence of figures like Benny Goodman and Count Basie.
Check out "Moten Swing" from Bernie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra featuring Count Basie. This recording was made in 1932 and perhaps demonstrates a good bridge between the 1920's and Swing Era of the 30's.
Sunday, 27 June 2010
His duets with violinist Joe Venuti would set the stage for the famous Hot Club collaboration of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli in the 1930's. Here's a great example of this, "Wild Cat".
Lang was the house guitarist for the famous Okeh records label in New York and as such worked with many famous names including Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby. Due to the racial segregation of the time he used a pseudonym for his works with that other famous guitarist of the time, Lonnie Johnson. His choice of Blind Willie Dunn seems, retrospectively first class. Here he is with Johnson on "Blue Room", a very bluesy number that Lang has no problem with, keeping up with Johnson's 12 string. The result is utterly sublime.
Lang also managed to find time to work with the legendary King Oliver around 1927. The recordings known as Blind Willie Dunn and his Gin Bottle Four sees Oliver as a sideman rather than the bandleader. Here's "Blue Blood Blues",
When Eddie's career began, it was the banjo that was the instrument of choice for many. This was primarily due to its sound being able to cut through the brass instruments on those early acoustic recordings. However the development of electric recording techniques after 1925 would change things immensely as a microphone could now be placed closer to the guitar and individual strings could be heard clearly. Very simple in terms of today's technology but pretty earth shattering for the development of the guitar in popular music. As such the function of the guitar changed dramatically in the jazz band set up.
As a guitar player myself it has been interesting to research Eddie Lang's career and to view his place in the pantheon of early guitar trailblazers. My focus when learning the guitar was to listen to players like BB King and Robert Johnson. I knew the names of Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian based on how they influenced my early lead guitar heroes, Scotty Moore and Chuck Berry. My ignorance of Lang has been glaring and it is a shame. The influence over subsequent guitar players is clear to see, as his stylng and phrasing would become commonplace jazz staples. A virtuoso indeed.
Monday, 7 June 2010
Saturday, 5 June 2010
Saturday, 29 May 2010
Like most of his contemporaries, Bechet headed for the bright lights of Chicago and hooked up with Clarence Williams, Freddie Keppard and King Oliver. He was one of the first musicians to see the rising popularity of jazz in Europe and so travelled to France and Britain in the early 20's, to great acclaim. He appears to have been something of a wild man and was deported back to the States after an altercation with the law. Back in the States, with a soprano sax in tow that he had picked up in London, he eventually began working again with Clarence Williams and making his first recordings.
It is in these recordings made from 1923 to 1925 that Bechet's musicianship can be seen. The vibrato that emanates from his clarinet and sax could be seen as both violent and extremely soulful. It's safe to say that no-one at the time had heard anything like it. The influence of the blues can clearly be heard in his playing and he is happy to push the boundaries away from the ensemble style of jazz that was prevelant at the time. In fact these recordings were made a few months before Louis Armstrong and King Oliver made their seminal jazz recordings in Richmond, Indiana.
Here are the first recordings, "Wild Cat Blues" and "Kansas City Man Blues". Note Bechets' dominance on these tracks.
However it should be noted that Bechet and Armstrong were actually friends and knew each other from their early days in New Orleans. Luckily for us Clarence Williams had the nous to organise a recording session involving both of them in what one Bechet biographer has termed the "Duel of the giants". I personally dislike the term. What I hear in these recordings are two artists who have great respect for each other but are willing to push each other on and get the ultimate out of their instruments. As we have seen before, Louis Armstrong was no shrinking violet even in the presence of his mentor, King Oliver.
Here's "Texas Moaner Blues". It opens with Bechet on the clarinet. Armstrong's cornet solo is typically strong and lays down the challenge to Bechet's soprano sax for the final bars.
"Mandy Make Up Your Mind". The only known jazz song with a sarrusophone solo - a kind of cross between a bassoon and a bass saxophone. This musical oddity was primarily used in the pre electic era as a replacement for the double bass which was difficult to hear and record. Bechet gives it a go!
Finally, check out "Cake Walkin' Babies From Home", another great example of how well the two pioneers in jazz gelled so well.
Unfortuantely Bechet was not to record again for the rest of the 20's. He became briefly involved with Duke Ellington's Washingtonians band but his wanderlust appears to have been insatiable. He travelled on from the States to Europe to play in France, Britain and as far as Russia. He wasn't to achieve the success that Louis Armstrong enjoyed in America but he was highly regarded in Europe, particularly in France, where he eventually settled. His influence in jazz is considerable - from Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane and beyond.
Friday, 16 April 2010
A band leader, composer, arranger and entertainer, Duke Ellington's career spans from the early jazz years of the 1920's to the 1970's. His early influences were ragtime and classical music. He began his career playing at well to do society parties in his native Washington DC - not anything near to jazz. This changed however when he moved to New York in the early 1920's and became involved in the Harlem movement. A small fish in a big pond it seems, as he and his band struggled to make ends meet. He was however, crucially, exposed to the developments of stride piano at the time. He soaked up the music of James P Johnson, Fats Waller and Willie The Lion Smith and started to write his own music, his debut being "Soda Fountain Rag" (unfortunately I can't locate it for this post). Eventually he became the band leader for The Washingtonians and began a stint at The Kentucky Club in New York City.
It was at this time that he began his first colloborations with trumpeter, Bubber Miley. Miley was heavily influenced by the New Orleans sound of Louis Armstrong and Joe "King" Oliver, who he had seen play in Chicago in the early 20's. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, Oliver was a pioneer in developing different sounds for trumpet playing, particularly the mute. Bubber Miley was to expand this technique further with a plunger mute and is credited with popularsing the growl or the "jungle sound" that is associated with Ellington's early recordings.
Here is the song East St Louis Toodle-oo, a great example of this style.
Ellington developed this style further by making compositions specifically designed to be played by the soloists in his orchestra. Here's The Mooche with Bubber Miley at his best.
Here is Black And Tan Fantasy This is a good demonstration of an Ellington/Miley composition that begins slow and in a minor key that develops a faster tempo and to a major key change and then back and forth (with Chopin's funeral march thrown in at the end for good measure!)
The big break for Ellington and his band came when they landed a gig at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem (which Joe King Oliver had famously turned down). They played there from 1927 to 1932 and even though it was a whites only club they had national exposure as the shows were sydndicated and broadcast over the radio. The legend of how Duke Ellington's Orchestra managed to get the gig tells a lot about the period and the kind of people associated with the famous speakeasies of the time. Duke had a contract with a club in Philadelphia that prevented him from taking the Cotton Club opening. With the help of his agent Irving Mills, who shall we say was "connected" with the right people, he was released from the contract after the club in Philadelphia received a telegram from the Cotton Club owners saying, "Be big or be dead". An offer they couldn't refuse!
Sunday, 4 April 2010
Smith it seems was very much an underground figure in the Harlem scene in the 1920’s, though no less an influence on jazz for it. Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk cite him as a major influence (Ellington wrote a couple of songs in his honour.) He didn’t actually record as a solo artist until the 30’s but he had a long career stretching as far as the 1970s.
He cut quite a figure with his derby hat, checked waistcoat and ever present cigar. His technique was quite simply breathtaking. It almost sounds as if there are two people playing at once. Check out the aptly named “Fingerbuster”, which he originally recorded in 1939.
NPR have done a great documentary on Willie The Lion Smith. It includes a great explanation of stride piano.
Sunday, 7 March 2010
However I was unaware of the actual style of his playing. I assumed that he played an early form of boogie woogie but in fact his style is very much Harlem Stride. He was a student of James P Johnson, who we looked at in the previous post. I have heard it argued though that Waller took the stride piano form to a higher level. He was a formidable musician but in his favour was his immense showmanship. This is apparent in the songs and records that he left us. I love the humour that jump out of the songs. It sounds like he was having the time of his life (and he probably was considering that he was partial to having a bottle of gin on his piano).
His entire catalogue is worth checking out, but here are a few choice cuts.
Handful of Keys. This song exemplifies Fats Waller's technique.
Honeysuckle Rose. A great example of Fats' sublime piano playing infused with his tongue in cheek delivery.
The Joint Is Jumpin'. It's Friday night in 1920's Harlem.
Tuesday, 23 February 2010
With the cultural explosion that came with the Harlem Renaissance there was the rise of popular night clubs and rent parties in the city. Places like The Savoy, The Cotton Club and The Apollo Theatre. The movement also created a new black middle class who wished to distance themselves from the rural sounds of “Dixie” jazz and so they turned to music that was more piano orientated. Johnson was quick to latch onto this and composed many pieces that are revered in jazz circles even today. He is widely regarded as the “father” of stride piano. He composed The Charleston, perhaps the definitive dance piece that represents the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties.
I’m not a piano player but I have learned that stride piano is so called because it is the left hand that “strides” up the piano in a busy fashion using a boom-chick-boom-chick motion combined with a complex right hand. The idea of using the alternating left hand pattern typical of ragtime as a foundation over which new melodies could be improvised is the basis of stride piano. The stride pianist generally makes more liberal use of blues harmonies in his music than does the ragtime composer. (source:)
Here is James P. Johnson playing one of his famous songs, Snowy Morning Blues.
Wednesday, 10 February 2010
Here is a nice essay from the Red Hot Jazz website. The piece comes from the liner notes of a 78rpm record from 1947, written by George Avakian, himself a jazz record producer of some note.
Tuesday, 2 February 2010
Listening to the music that Bix recorded in the late 20’s is like listening to a soundtrack for a whole decade. The music is eerily familiar. Maybe it is because of the use of the songs in so many subsequent films.(Singing The Blues in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway and Blackboard Jungle, most famously.) However I feel the reason goes deeper. In listening to the songs you can hear the influence the music was to have over the big band era that was to come in the next decade. The crooner becomes popular around this time, (Bing Crosby sang on some songs that Bix played on). Even further than that, it could be said that, the music was highly influential over the “cool jazz” scene decades later. You know this music. It is intrinsicly complex and derives some influence from classical music as well as the hot jazz scene at the time.
The music is markedly different from the Hot Five and Seven recordings made at the same time by Louis Armstrong. And therein lies a lot of criticism. Many it seems have argued that the white bandleaders of the day made the music in a way that was less edgy – more mainstream and accessible. Akin to how Bill Haley and The Comets took the music of RnB and sanitised it to a certain degree to make it more accessible to white middle class America in the 50’s. I personally would disagree with this view. I believe the music has stood the test of time.
Bix himself is a source of controversy in jazz circles in relation to how important his contribution was to the history of jazz. He died young and was largely unknown at that point. Hence the Beiderbecke Romantic Legend and the “Young Man With A Horn” stories. No musical genre is without its legends but I think Bix Beiderbecke’s music stands up with the music that I’ve listened to from this era. His approach is very different from Louis Armstrong’s but no less potent for that. As a guitar player I like to think I can recognise great tone when I hear it.
Singin' The Blues, perhaps the most famous recording he was involved with, nicely demonstrates the collision of the hot New Orleans jazz and a sweet romantic sound.
The following songs are, I think, are a good representation of the Bix Beiderbecke sound. Of course this is only a snippet and I look forward to delving into the other recordings he made.
Here's a nice audio tribute.
Monday, 18 January 2010
It's been a while since my last post. The main reason for the break is that I have spent a lot of the time researching the early music of Louis Armstrong (definitely pronounced with an s, not Lou-ee.) And quite frankly I have been overwhelmed. I simply had no clue as to the extent of this man's influence, not only over jazz, but over 20th century popular music as a whole. My personal impressions of him were formed when I was growing up. I had an image of the classic Louis Armstrong, the vaudevillian-esque performer with the deep husky voice. I remember the countless commercials/advertisements that have used his later music, including "We have all the time in the world" and "Wonderful World." This was, embarrassingly, the extent of my knowledge of the man and his music.
So it was with some frustration that I first listened to his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. These were Louis Armstrong's first solo recordings made for the Okeh label in Chicago between 1925 and 1929. I say frustration because I cannot believe it has taken me this long to listen to some music that is so clearly iconic. These records clearly illustrate a turning point. They are the link between the old style "dixie" jazz and all other forms of jazz that came after.
This isn't the first time that we have come across Louis Armstrong's work. I first mentioned him in this blog when I looked at the music of his mentor, Joe "King" Oliver. Those recordings of the Creole Jazz Band are clearly in the old classic New Orleans style - each of the main instruments overlapping behind the main melody. Louis Armstrong changed all that. The opening blast of West End Blues (an Oliver composition) announces the new style.
What I found particularly striking about these recordings was how fresh his playing sounds. We are still talking about a fairly primitive period in terms of sound recording and the music has that "crackly" 1920's feel. Yet Armstrong's trumpet playing sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday, such is its clarity. As mentioned there was a lot more emphasis on the soloing ability of the musicians and obvious improvisation (check out Struttin' With Some Barbecue). Potato Head Blues employs a stop time solo which was light years ahead of its time and something that rock musicians later employed - think Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love.
Lonnie Johnson was brought in for some of the recordings. Again, a musician that I have heard of through interviews with BB King and Mark Knopfler but I am ashamedly ignorant of in terms of his music. However his guitar playing jumps out of the tracks I'm Not Rough and Hotter Than That. In the latter song there is a wonderful call and response with Armstrong scatting to Johnson's guitar. The duet with Earl Hines in the song Weather Bird is also superb (although not part of the Hot Five sessions)
It is something of an understatement to say how superb these songs are. Yet it should be noted that the Hot Five and Hot Seven line-ups never performed live. The sessions were fairly informal in nature (as evidenced in the track A Monday Date) However, the influence the music was to have over the future of jazz is, in my opinion, obvious.
Click here for a great documentary from NPR regarding Louis Armstrong's early career.
Sunday, 10 January 2010
A number of events culminated in the space of a few years that helped to shape the direction of the music. Moves were made to close Storyville when the U.S. entered World War 1 in 1917. The Great Migration saw the movement of a million or so to the west coast and into larger northern cities, in particular Chicago. Finally the "Noble Experiment" of Prohibition ushered in the era of the jazz age in the 1920s. Enter the age of illicit liqour, speakeasies and the gangster. Jazz music was to provide the soundtrack for this drama. Moving the music away from its home had an effect on the style. This is where improvisation came to the fore - perhaps, it has been suggested, because the musicians felt more comfortable experimenting with the music in front of people with untrained ears.
The Lincoln Gardens, or The Royal Gardens, became a place synonomous with the music. It was here that Bill Johnson (who had earlier summoned Freddie Keppard to the west coast) established the Original Creole Band, that later became King Oliver's band. With this came the arrival of Louis Armstrong to Chicago and Bix Biederbecke shortly after. With the opening of the first commercial radio station in 1920 and the increased popularity of vinyl records, jazz music was about to go viral across the country,
Tuesday, 5 January 2010
Here's a great version of an old classic, See See Rider