Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The Cannonball Jazz Library 3.

Coming in at number three is Eddie Lang's, Jazz Guitar Vitruoso.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Kansas City

“If you want to see some sin, forget about Paris, go to Kansas City”. Omaha Herald.

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

Jazz, Swing and The Big Band Era

"Ah, swing, well, we used to call it ragtime, then blues–then jazz. Now, it's swing. White folks yo'all sho is a mess. Swing!" (Louis Armstrong's reply when asked to define swing music)

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.