Monday, 1 October 2012

Hot Lips Page

One of the tracks that blew me away when recently listening to an album by Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra for the jazz library was "Lafayette". The reason? The absolutely scorching trumpet solo from Oran "Hot Lips" Page. Before we continue, please have a listen.

Lafayette by Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra on Grooveshark

Early Basie, no? Perhaps a little more up tempo than the classic Basie riff sound that was to dominate jazz five years later. Some ingredients for a classic pre-swing jazz track are included in this track. An opening tenor sax solo from one of the legends of the instrument, Ben Webster; jazz bass innovator Walter Page and Count Basie himself on the piano. However, for me, the outstanding moment is Hot Lips Page's blistering solo. Such was his talent that he opted to leave the Basie band right before they were to make it big in 1936. He had decided to try for a solo career under the guidance of Louis Armstrong's manager, Joe Gleason. The fact that you may not have heard of Hot Lips Page but you know undoubtedly who Louis Armstrong is, is an indication of where Hot Lips Page's career sadly went. 


Oran Thaddeus "Hot Lips" Page was born in 1908 in Dallas Texas. His early musical career saw him move around the States quite a bit. Before the age of 20 he had already provided backing for such blues legends as Ma Rainey, Ida Cox and Bessie Smith. His grounding in the blues was to remain with him for the remainder of his career and provided a very important element to his jazz improvisation. In fact a lot of Page's recordings that I have listened to recently are pure out and out blues. Not surprisingly then he is regarded as an innovative force in early R 'n' B. Yet he was also involved in many musical events that were to shape the direction of jazz from the early 30's onward. 

He was a member of the hugely important band The Blue Devils in the late 1920's which was eventually to become Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra. He was prominently featured in a legendary recording session that took place in New Jersey in December 1932. Some of the tracks that were recorded that day included Moten Swing and the above mentioned Lafayette. This was the music that was to pave the way for the Swing era that dominated jazz in the 1930's. After opting to go solo, Page had modest success fronting his own orchestra in the latter part of the decade. As well as a superb trumpeter he was also a formidable vocalist very much in the style of Louis Armstrong. 

Page was never to achieve much success as an orchestra leader. Yet as a sideman he made some fantastic tracks in the 1940's. His travels across the country were to see him work and record with Artie Shaw, Ben Webster and Sidney Bechet, to name a few. He performed in Carnegie Hall in 1942 with Fats Waller, although sadly only one track of the concerts has survived. Page also pushed himself musically and was unafraid to experiment as evidenced by his attendance and participation at the 1942 jam sessions various Harlem nightclubs. These sessions involved many of the artists that would make bebop the next driving force of jazz. 

Hot Lips Page & Sidney Bechet (New York 1947)

I have really enjoyed researching and listening to the music of Hot Lips Page. It is really hard to pin his musical style down and to put a label onto his work as a whole. Riff style jazz, smooth orchestra, small combo stuff, pop, novelty songs, duets, out and out blues - he covered a lot of bases and it would be unfair to characterise him solely as a blues singer or a jazz trumpeter. His body of work speaks for itself. So too perhaps do his last known recordings which were of a raucous live show that included the tracks St Louis Blues, Sheik of Araby, On The Sunny Side Of The Street and a fantastic St James Infirmary. Unfortunately after much trawling of the internet I cannot find any versions to embed here. They are on the Chronological Classics album 1950 - 1953 and are well worth seeking out. Traditional good time jazz at its best performed by one of the greats who deserves way more recognition. 

Here's another earlier cracking version of St James Infirmary that Page recorded in 1947.  

St. James Infirmary by Hot Lips Page on Grooveshark

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Roy Eldridge

"Every time he's on he does the best he can, no matter what the conditions are. And Roy is so intense about everything, so that it's far more important to him to dare, to try to achieve a particular peak, even if he falls on his ass in the attempt, than it is to play safe. That's what jazz is all about." Norman Granz

While researching the life and music of Lester Young, one of the names that kept popping up was Roy Eldridge. What I knew of him was the (perhaps somewhat cliched) line that he was the musical link between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. Such simplifications seem to be rife in jazz history as historians try to create links between the different genres. This is certainly true in my opinion of Roy Eldridge.

Known to his peers as "Little Jazz" due to his short stature, Eldridge was to be one of the most important trumpet players in jazz in a career that spanned five decades. I first heard him on the aforementioned Lester Young recordings that were made for the Verve label in the mid-late1950's. His range was spectacular and his tone was a little raspy - yet his riffs were never tasteless. He was steeped in the swing tradition, as was Young, but his style continued to evolve so that he was never outdated by the sweeping changes that occurred in the music with the advent of bebop and beyond. 

Eldridge's trumpet playing is odd in that he was a musician who was not directly influenced by Louis Armstrong. This probably set him apart as he gained popularity playing with various swing outfits in the 1930's. Stylistically Eldridge himself stated that he was far more influenced by sax players than by trumpet players. It is argued that as Armstrong's playing became more predictable and less players were adapting to the decline of swing, Eldridge was probably the top trumpet player to come out of the 30's into the bebop 40s. His big breakthrough came with his association with Benny Goodman alumnus, drummer Gene Krupa, with whom he was to make many remarkable recordings in the early 40s. 

One such recording was "Rocking Chair", a fantastic example of Eldridge's chops, recorded in July 1941. Stylistically the song really is a connect the dots in terms of jazz lineage - a "sweet" horn section makes the song flow while the swing beat is held up by Krupa on the brushes (a sound which I personally have evolved a real like for since hearing Buddy Rich on "The Lester Young Trio" album). Eldridge goes through the entire register of the trumpet and hits some dizzying high notes - all without losing an ounce of soul that the song calls for. Apparently Eldridge was "blind drunk" during this recording. After sobering up he begged Krupa never to release it. Two months later his pal Ben Webster played the song back to him. Eldridge remarked, "Who's that? It's not Louis, it's not Diz." It blew his mind after he discovered it was actually him on the record. Check it out:

Rockin' Chair by Roy Eldridge with the Gene Krupa Orchestra on Grooveshark

There is probably something in the theory that he was the musical link between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. His style was innovative - he could play extremely fast - and Gillespie stated that "he was the messiah of our time." The song "Heckler's Hop" for example was to prove influential in directing Gillespie's style. Recorded in the late 30's with a small combo the song is fast and edgy. It's not hard to see how a song like this would have influenced many of the bebop players searching for a new musical direction in the early 40s. 

Heckler's Hop by Roy Eldridge on Grooveshark

He toured with many big names throughout the 40's, including a stint leading his own band. He emerged from a crisis of confidence after a successful stop in Paris in the early 1950's and it was around this time that he teamed up with Granz and the Verve label. He was prolific for the remainder of the decade. Health issues slowed him down later in his career. He became the leader of a house band in Manhattan during the 1970s and recorded sporadically. His final recording was the majestic "Montreaux 1977", a fitting album to close a long illustrious career. 

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Lester Young. Part 2

"Anyone who doesn't play by Lester is just wrong!" (Brew Moore)

If you listen to the first track Lester Young ever recorded, "Shoe Shine Boy" (1936), and contrast this with the final track twenty some years later, "Tea For Two" (1959), the differences are stark. The former demonstrates Young's innovative, airy tone. The latter seems a little disjointed and breathy. Unsurprising, as he was a very sick man at this time and, even though he was only 49, he had lived a life twice over. Many think the turning point in his life was due to the hard times he suffered when he was drafted into the military. The regular army was no place for a creative soul like Lester Young. He was court-martialed for possession of marijuana and alcohol. His one year army career was spent in the detention barracks in Alabama followed by a dishonourable discharge. It's an easy tack to take - genius before the army, burnt out after the army. I don't believe such a simplistic view deserves any credit. True artists evolve and Lester Young was a true artist. His experiences only added another colour to his palette.

Here is a great recording of an NPR interview with Lester's biographer Douglas Daniels. He gives an extremely eloquent critique of his time in the army and the effect on his playing.

I personally have found the recordings he made since December 1945 to be some of the finest I have listened to since embarking on this project. Some of my personal favourites have included the recordings he made with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich (known as the Lester Young Trio). Check out the superb interaction between the three on "I've Found A New Baby". The song demonstrates the swing tradition that they came from but is at the same time extremely innovative.

I've Found a New Baby by Lester Young on Grooveshark

Lester continued to make superb recordings throughout the rest of the 40's and 50's for the Verve label under the watchful eye of producer Norman Granz. These recordings produced superb collaborations with the likes of Oscar Peterson, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Roy Eldridge and Teddy Wilson to name but a few. His lifestyle would ultimately restrict his technique but I refute any charge that he didn't play anything but from the heart.

Lester was interviewed on tape towards the end of his life by a young French jazz enthusiast named Francois Postif. These rare recordings show Young reminiscing on his career and offer insight into his opinions on the world of jazz up to that time. One quote remains telling: "I don't like a lot of noise - trumpets and trombones. I'm looking for something soft. It's got to be sweetness man, you dig?"

To finish up here is one of the few videos of Lester playing "Mean To Me" (with Willie "The Lion" Smith on piano). The song begins in quite a pedestrian manner until Lester instructs the drummer to add "a little tinky boom, ya dig"! Great stuff.