Monday, March 9, 2009

Kansas City Here I Come

Benny Moten Orchestra, Thick Lip Stomp, 1926

Benny Moten Orchestra, Moten Stomp, 1927

New Orleans was the birthplace of Jazz, Chicago in the early 20s was its second home, and in the mid to late 20s, New York City became the place to be, but that doesn't mean that great Jazz wasn't played elsewhere. Until prominent Jazz bands became nationally broadcast in the 30s, so-called "Territory Bands" were more common, and the greatest territory band outside of the great capitals of jazz was Benny Moten's Kansas City Orchestra. Getting his start in the early 20s, Benny Moten's band dominated the midwestern-plains circuit. Its earliest recordings in 1923 show a more ragtime based rhythm, but also a focus on the blues that would remain characteristic of the Kansas City Style well into the 30s, and which was one of the elements that made the Basie band the force that brought the living, beating heart back into Jazz in the Swing era, when commercialism and sophistication were threatening to stifle it. By the way, the devil-may-care attitude of Kansas City's Mayor Prendergast and his machine encouraged the proliferation of night clubs with hot music and hotter patrons that made the city the center of vice, accompanied by the swinginest jams ever heard, all through the era.

And, if for no other reason, the Moten orchestra is famous as the birthplace and core of the later Count Basie Band. In fact, Basie got his big break from Moten later in the 20s, and he met a number of later Basie stalwarts, prominently bassist Walter Page, in the Moten band, or in Page's case, even earlier in Walter Page's Blue Devils, later folded into the Moten Band. Basie, and later Goodman, also featured Moten's tune 'Moten Swing' prominently in their playbooks in the 30s. Benny Moten himself, though, wasn't around to hear it. He died prematurely of what should have been a routine operation in 1933, and Basie inherited the greatest territory band that ever was.

We shall hear more of this band as we move through the years...

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Louis Armstrong 1924-25

Fletcher Henderson Orchesra with Louis Armstrong, Copenhagen 1924

Bessie Smith with Louis Armstrong, St. Louis Blues, Jan 1925

In 1923, Louis Armstrong made his first recordings, with his mentor, King Oliver. In late 1925, he began a series of (studio only) recordings, the Hot 5's and Hot 7's, that utterly transformed the course of jazz forever by establishing the virtuoso solo as the sine qua non for every jazz performance. But what was he doing between these two periods?

In New York City, Fletcher Henderson had by 1924 already established his orchestra as the number one jazz group in town. Of course, these NYC black musicians had very different background than the New Orleans trained performers like Armstrong, no matter whether they were black or white. Henderson had already begun the process of creating written arrangements for jazz tunes, an innovation required for the northern musicians for whom improvisational counterpoint was not part of their training, and which would be brought to new heights later by Don Redman. But he had heard Armstrong and knew that he would be a really exciting addition. Armstrong finally listened to the prompting of his wife at the time, Lillian Hardin Armstrong, to strike out on his own, and accepted Henderson's offer.

The Henderson recording here is not the absolute best for highlighting Armstrong's contributions to the band, but you can hear him strike out with the vigorous and driving tone that certainly woke up the new york musicians, and impelled them to sharpen their sense of rhythm, not to mention the proper application of the blues scale.

(Also, the proud owner of this actual original 78, and a beautiful victrola, has unaccountably chosen to highlight his possesions in a bare room with such live reverberations that they threaten to overwhelm the actual recording. I apologise for being so lazy that I have not yet created my own videos to make up for the lacunae in the You Tube recordings that are currently available. Truly, I am teh lazy blogger!)

The other recording here is a famous one that Louis made with the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith. All through the 20s, Louis would find the time to pick up a few dollars by performing on recordings with singers. (Musicians would only make a flat fee for recordings, with no royalties or residuals, until the successful outcome of the strike they held during WWII. The so-called V-Discs were made by the U.S. Army during this strike to make sure that servicemen would not be deprived of jazz during the strike!)

In this great recording of W.C. Handy's St. Louis Blues, Armstrong can barely restrain himself from playing while Bessie Smith is singing. In fact, he is not really showing good musical manners! However, the result for us is a feast of virtuoso singing and playing that makes this side one of the most rewarding of Bessie Smith's many fine recordings. Bessie was not as pleased as we might be - she told her producers to never hire Louis again, and the remainder of her recordings from this period often feature Louis' replacement in the Henderson band, the unjustly neglected Joe Smith.

(okay, for some insane reason there is some copyright issue with this particular recording. it is still, however, a 'must hear' for fans of pops and the empress of the blues)