Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Original Dixieland Jass Band - "Livery Stable Blues" and "Tiger Rag"

What was the first jazz record?

Fortunately, this is not an obscure question. In 1916, real jazz musicians and bands from New Orleans had begun to appear here and there in vaudeville shows and in a couple of spots in chicago. The story goes that eccentric dancer Joe Frisco saw the musicians that would later compose the Original Dixieland Jass Band down in New Orleans and pitched them to his buddies up in Chicago and New York...

In any case, by late 1916, the Original Dixieland Jass Band was in residence at Reseweiber's Cafe in NYC near Columbus Circle, Still a hotspot in those days. A white group, they were still wild and untamed by contemporary standards and most people believed that the music was improvised on the spot and even that it violated all possible musical 'rules'. Victor recorded them in early 1917 and the resulting sides caused a national sensation, becoming one of the early million selling records (only things like recordings of Caruso had sold anything like that before). Jazz had arrived.

Of course, there are always the accusations of racism, since the very white ODJB remained the only real New Orleans group to be recorded for the next five years, and african americans are credited with being the mainspring of inspiration for jazz as well as other innovative foundations of american culture. It is well known, that Freddie Keppard, one of the black "Trumpet Kings" of New Orleans jazz, was offered a recording contract in 1916, but turned it down because he was so paranoid about other cornet players stealing his tricks (he was reputed to throw a handkercheif over his fingers when he spotted another cornet player in the audience so that they couldn't even copy his valve work!). Kid Ory's band finally recorded in 1922, and in 1923 a large body of work was recorded by King Oliver's Creole Jazz Orchestra, including Louis Armstrong's first recorded solos.

But in 1917, the ODJB was jazz, and is earliest example of the real thing that we have. The sound was a revelation, and jazz, although it has changed rapidly throughout the decades, has never stopped being at the heart of american culture since then. May I add that "Livery Stable Blues" and "Tiger Rag" still kick ass after all these years?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

James P. Johnson, King of Stride

In the first 16 years of the 20th century, before most americans had heard of the word "jazz", American Popular Music was a mashup of different styles - ragtime in a degenerate, fast, and not very interesting evolution, sweet string orchestras playing waltzes and sentimental ballads crooned by irish tenors, players of a hybird 'banjo-mandolin' together with violin players forming "gypsy orchestras", Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson belting out "blackface" tunes on the vaudeville circuit and the Ziegfield Follies, brass bands playing Souza marches. The blues had become well known to americans since 1912 due to the popularity of W.C. Handy's Dallas Blues and St. Louis Blues, but only through sheet music - most americans would not learn what a real blues note sounded like until Mamie Smith recorded "Crazy Blues" in 1920, unleashing the second wave of blues popularity. The general level of "heat" found in american music was pretty tame.

But up in Harlem in the teens, the locals were re-invigorating the ragtime style with something faster, harder-edged, and bluesier, which they called "Stride". And James P. Johnson was the greatest of the stride masters. He also wrote The Charleston, and another tune that didn't become popular until WWII, "If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight" (which i first heard from the lips of that great interpreter of swing, Bugs Bunny). He can be heard backing Bessie Smith in many of her classic recordings, and Fats Waller studied under him.

By the late 20s James P was behind the times and out of style, but his influence had already pervaded the jazz piano style and dominated it until the late 30s. Here he is back in the old days and at his best, playing "Harlem Strut"...

Saturday, December 27, 2008

1912 - James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra - "Down Home Rag"

America's dance craze began in the 1910s and lasted well into the 50s and 60s. In 1910, white americans were well into the 'ragtime era', and even hotter forms of music produced by america's "colored" community were seeping out into the general population and causing their butts to twitch with a desire to get up and shake it!

The impeccably refined white couple Irene and Vernon Castle were the premier dance instructors for this segment of white america in the 1910s. The favorite presentation by far was "how NOT to dance the Turkey Trot". The Castles would demonstrate the most earthy, society-unacceptable moves of the Turkey Trot (the ancestor, of course, of the Fox Trot), the hot hot hot moves that everybody really wanted to shock their parents with, all the time warning the audience, toungue in cheek, to NEVER perform these steps under any circumstances!! The Castles were very famous, and were portrayed by Astaire and Rogers in a 1939 movie.

And whose music did the Castles dance to??? Why, James Reese Europe's Society Orchestra, the most prominent colored ensemble of the day! Based in NYC, Europe became so well know through playing for the Castles that a special musical contingent of the US Army National Guard was formed for him, and enabled him to bring 'colored' music to the battlefields of France, where it was reported that the strange, exotic sounds caused even the provincial french butts to unaccountably sway back and forth in a manner that reminded an american musician in Europe's ensemble of the "Eagle Rock", described as a dance movement with its origins in the boudoir... Unfortunately, Europe was killed by a neurotic band member shortly after his triumphant return to the US after the war.

Please enjoy here the Society Orchestra's 1912 rendition of Wilbur Sweatman's Down Home Rag...

Friday, December 26, 2008

1928 - Red Nichols - "That's No Bargain!"

There seems to have been some hostility towards Red Nichols in the jazz community in the 20s - it seemed that he arrived before Bix Beiderbecke as the modernistic innovative white jazz trumpeter, and when Bix arrived, Red, not the genius soloist that Bix was, was seen as somehow maliciously covering him up.

Nevertheless, Red Nichols was a genius at one thing: bringing a group of musicians together to create a unique and exciting sound, getting cutting edge efforts out of his soloists, and getting them to work interactively to craft gemlike recordings. Of Red as a soloist himself, well, his tone is very bright and hard edged, his attack has been described as "military", and his solos, while always innovative, sometimes don't make any sense.

But his best sessions are like nothing else...