Monday, January 12, 2009

Sidney Bechet 1923

Wild Cat Blues

One fine day in New Orleans back before 1910, a band was playing a party in someone's house. From another room they suddenly heard someone playing a wicked clarinet along with the band. I turned out that little Sidney Bechet had picked up his brother's clarinet and just taught himself how to play, that's all!

Bechet kicked around New Orleans in the teens with the rest of the musicians, most of whom, as Louis Armstrong describes in his book My Life In New Orleans, had day jobs. But by the end of the teens things had changed - jazz had become big business, and, ironically, all of the best jazz musicians had left New Orleans. Sidney Bechet was touring Europe with a band, and came across a soprano saxophone one afternoon in a pawnshop in England.

He had always had a ferocious lip, a supernaturally powerful tone, and a scintillating vibrato wide enough to frame the sistine chapel. He also had a nasty temper and tended to get into fights. After one such fracas he was persuaded to leave Europe for a while, so he came back to the United States for a few years, recording this and a few other sides. Discographers joke that he is one band member who can never be mistaken when there is little other information about a rare record: that tone could only be Sidney!

During the 20s and 30s he was in and out of the United States, but soon he settled in France, where he became a national treasure. His innate sense of musical drama, in addition to his tone, sustained many more decades of performing there, and he lived like an aristocrat. He belongs on the roll of true and original New Orleans Jazz geniuses.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Young Bix, 1923-4, and the Chicago Style

wolverines, copenhagen, 1924

New Orleans Rhythm Kings

Up in Davenport, Iowa, in the years around 1920, a teenager with a cornet kept on playing his Original Dixieland Jazz Band records over and over, trying to play along with them on his cornet. Aspiring jazz musicians have done the same ever since, playing along with the recordings of their idols, trying to learn the trick of playing and composing at the same time that is what jazz improvisation is all about, not to mention giving it a little bit on what's in your heart so that you are speaking with your own voice.

Bix grew up in a middle class family with a bit of a taste for music, but his father strongly disapproved of jazz, and this fact cast a shadow over Bix's entire life. Nevertheless, he persisted in learning the cornet, and a wise teacher hired by his parents told them that he played all wrong, but that he was not going to interfere because the young man was "getting excellent results". In fact, Bix was perfecting a unique and wonderful cornet style that still stands out, featuring a beautiful bell-like tone, and perfectly formed eighth and sixteenth notes with an miraculously formed attack. His tone has been compared to "BBs hitting a bell", and, most poetically by Eddie Condon, who compared it to "a girl saying yes". Even Louis Armstrong was impressed: "those pretty notes went right through me".

Bix also had a firm grasp of modern harmony, and his solos are just as well known for their beauty and advanced harmonic conception. On famous composition, In A Mist, recorded on the piano by Bix, is really more of an impressionist piano composition than a jazz piece.

Bix was also recorded early on at Gennett records. He was playing with the Wolverines, a small group formed to play in the clubs and summer resorts of the midwest. As the records filtered out, musicians all over the country pricked up their ears when Bix's clear, beautiful tone leapt out. These early recordings of Bix have a charm all their own, but we will return to Bix later on for a look at his career when he was in the big time.

Also included are some Gennett sides by another northern white group, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. They are known for self-consciously including what were considered "black" elements into their playing, chiefly a bluesy sound that contrasted with the ricky-ticky rhythms and straight intonation that characterized some other white groups of the time. It made a big impression on their peers, including Bix.

All in all, these Gennett recordings document the second generation of jazz players, young kids in the midwest who had never been in New Orleans. It was the good luck of Gennett to be the only record company in the midwest at the point in time when the heart of jazz was in Chicago...

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

tacitus and mme voltaire hang out in copenhagen, while, back home, master percy the cat relaxes on the deck...

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band with Louis Armstrong

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, "Mandy Lee Blues", "I'm Gonna Wear You Off My Mind", "Chimes Blues", 1923

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, "Just Gone", 1923

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, "Canal Street Blues", 1923

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, "Snake Rag", 1923

It was 1922 when the then obscure Kid Ory's Sunshine Orchestra became the first authentic african american jazz band from New Orleans to record. However, these few sides didn't have nearly the impact of the substantial series of recordings that King Oliver's band made for Gennett Records in 1923.

King Oliver was one of the three great Cornet Kings of New Orleans. He was famous for his effects on cornet, where he pioneered the use of mutes, especially the wah-wah style use of the plunger mute. His famous "crying baby" routine was unfortunately never recorded, but you can hear a little bit of his wonderful creamy crying tone especially at the very end of Mandy Leee Blues. (Unfortunately we don't have a You Tube posting of his famous solo on Dippermouth Blues, q.v.) By 1922 he was installed in the Lincoln Gardens in Chicago, where young white aspiring jazz musicians, including eventually a young Bix Beiderbecke, would sneak in and sit transfixed in front of the band stand, watching him in amazement, as well as Johnny Dodds with his incendiary clarinet tone, and his little brother Baby Dodds, who is famous for pioneering the modern trap set.

By 1923, however, King Oliver was suffering from gum disease, and found it difficult to play a complete set. He sent for Louis Armstrong, who around then had been playing on a riverboat on the mississippi. Louis played with a big, open tone, which contrasts with the smaller, plunger-muted tone that King Oliver was still playing at that time. Louis Armstrong's first recorded solo can be heard here on the third cut on the first 'video', "Chimes Blues". It shows his high level of musical training by that point, being a very organised and composed solo, almost like a classical composition exercise.

Gennett studios in Richmond, Indiana was the project of the Starr Piano company. The big recording studios were in NYC, and didn't make it out to Chigaco, where the real jazz was happening at that time. Despite being a conservative family of instrument makers with origins in Germany, they knew that african americans were making good music, and they secured their place in american cultural history by being the first to record King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

However, the studios were not up to the standard of Victor or Columbia. The famous story of the King Oliver recording sessions was how the engineers kept on pushing Louis farther and farther back, because his tone overwhelmed the other musicians on the test pressing, until he was standing in the hall. Even with the primitive recording standards, these sides have a wonderful cheerfulness that, along with the amazing hot solos, demonstrates what kept Bix and the others coming back to Lincoln Gardens night after night back in 1923...

Friday, January 2, 2009

"If you're not moaning, you're not singing the blues"

Mamie Smith, "Crazy Blues", 1920

Bessie Smith, "Nobody Can Bake A Sweet Jellyroll Like Mine", 1923

Bessie Smith, "Yellowdog Blues", 1925

Bessie Smith, "You Gotta Give Me Some", 1929

Bessie Smith, "Do Your Duty", 1933

These days, americans grow up immersed in the blues. The blues is in every type of american music, even country music. Musically speaking, the essence of the blues is the blue note, the subtle and seductive bending of the pitch of the note out of the strict scale so that is falls between the keys of a piano. We all know exactly how it's supposed to sound, exactly how the note should be bent to get that moaning, heart-twisting blues sound that is the heart of any guitar solo that ever existed in rock 'n' roll, and the way that americans sing.

But before 1920 most americans had never heard it.

So, when Crazy Blues was recorded in 1920 by one Mamie Smith, the effect was electric. Now, the band on this record is out of tune, and is no longer considered a great recording, but it is an important historical document, and a million seller that was instantly famous at the time, and changed forever american's idea of how a popular song should be sung.

Americans already knew about the blues from the success of W.C. Handy's St. Louis Blues, but this was sold as sheet music and played on the piano by white americans who had no notion of the blues scale. However, as soon as Crazy Blues came out the real blues sound went viral. Everybody knew that it was the real thing, and how american music had to sound. In the stilted white manner of the time, newspapers published instructions on how to moan like a real negro blues shouter, and African americans wrote in amazement about how white people were shaking their hips, letting it all loose when they sang and generally trying to get as black as possible. Even Fiorello La Guardia, then a republican congressman and later mayor of NYC, hosted a blues singing contest in 1923, and nobody was surprised that all the top contestants were black women.

Bessie Smith, of course, soon became The Empress of the Blues. She remained a superstar right up to her tragic death in a car accident in 1937. Her smooth, strong voice and impeccable phrasing defined what a blues vocal should sound like, and remains the gold standard. She was hard living woman to be reckoned with. The story goes that she was singing a big tent show in the south one night when word got in that some KKK members were coming around to make trouble, and that Bessie had better get out. Instead, she went right outside the tent and confronted the klansmen: "you better just pick them sheets up and run right now, or else I'm gonna get this whole tent out here". That did the trick...

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Jazz Craze Is On!

Original Dixieland Jass Band, Dixie Jass Band One Step

Frisco Jass Band

Original Dixieland Jazz Band, St. Louis Blues

The Jazz Craze was on, but what, exactly, was jazz and where could you get some? Until about 1923, the ODJB was the only genuine New Orleans jazz band doing any recording. The popular image of jazz was that it was wild and crazy, vulgar and noisy, and created on the spot by inspired musical illiterates. The ODJB, like african-american musicians had for decades before them, went along with the fiction that the music was improvised from scratch on the spot, that it couldn't be written down, and that they couldn't read music anyway.

The association of the saxophone with jazz also took hold in this ealy period, even though saxophones had rarely been seen in New Orleans bands before. The standard lineup in the teens had been clarinet, cornet, and trombone, accompanied by bass, drums, and guitar or piano. (The guitar, of course, was replaced by the banjo during the 20s because of how well the banjo registered with the pre-electric recording of the day). But for some never-explained reason, the public got it into its head that that wild and crazy saxophone just had to be in a jazz band! The ODJB dutifully went along and added a saxophonist to its lineup, and musicians set about figuring out how to get a jazzy sound out of the rather bland natural saxophone tone.

Featured here today are the 'Dixie Jass Band One Step', one of the ODJB's original wild and crazy signature tunes, a tune by a non-New-Orleans group led by saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft, and a great rendition by the ODJB of W.C. Handy's St. Louis blues.

Please listen carefully for the amazingly hot clarinet blues solo after the corny singing in St. Louis Blues. The solo sounds to me amazingly like the blues harp solos played by Little Walter with Muddy Waters in the records they made in the early 50s! Wow! Clarinettist Larry Shields was certaintly the musical star of the group! You can also hear the bland tone of the saxophonist that had been added...

The tune by the Frisco Jass Band as been added to give you and idea of the not very authentic or exciting non-New-Orleans jazz bands that sprang up to fill the demand for jazz that the recording industry was not really meeting, despite the fact that Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton, and Sidney Bechet were all playing at the time. None of them would be recorded before 1922.