Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dancing to the Duke Ellington Orchestra

The other night I felt like listening to some Ellington before bed, so I picked out a CD pretty much at random. It was a recording of the Ellington band playing a dance in California in 1958. The gig was recorded by the great west coast engineer Wally Heider; the tape was later found in Duke's archive and issued on CD.

As I listened, I was struck by what an amazing occurrence this was: these well-dressed couples, out for a pleasant evening of dancing, had their dance music provided by the greatest jazz orchestra of all time, led by one of the country's most original and accomplished composers. Amazing! I mean, I knew that the Ellington band, as well as all the other big bands, played for dances all the time. Somehow, though, it had never stuck me just what an odd and, well, amazing (to overuse the word) thing this was. I think it really hit me when the first piece the band played at this dance was "Main Stem," which I have always considered one of Ellington's minor masterpieces. To have this music at your dance! Amazing.

Sure, the band also played lots of standards and ballads that Ellington knew the dancers would enjoy, but mixed in plenty of great Ellington music like "Stompy Jones" and "Such Sweet Thunder." "Mood Indigo" was practically required at every dance, as well as every concert or club date that the band played. But Ellington kept changing the arrangement to keep it fresh. At the 1958 dance I listened to, it featured Shorty Baker on trumpet; at other times it featured a trio of two trombones and bass clarinet.

There are several CDs of Ellington dance dates out there. One of the best is the album first issued on two LPs as All Star Road Band; the CD title was changed (for some reason) to All Star Road Band Vol. II. This might be my favorite Ellington album from the 1950s, although I would hate to have to make that choice. The band is playing for dancers in the booming metropolis of Carrollton, Pennsylvania in 1956; they are in good spirits, the piano is in tune, and Ellington calls an interesting mix of tunes.

The most astounding Ellington dance recording is, without a doubt, the famous 1940 Fargo, North Dakota album. This is almost the absolute greatest lineup of the greatest jazz orchestra of all time. I say "almost" because Cootie Williams had just left the band; it was apparently Ray Nance's first gig with Ellington. This was the period when Ellington was turning out a masterpiece every other week, as one commentator has said. At Fargo, the band played "Ko-Ko," "Harlem Airshaft," "Warm Valley," "Never No Lament," "Rockin' in Rhythm," and "Conga Brava," among others. Two outstanding pieces of Ellingtonia, "Sepia Panorama" and "Across the Track Blues," are twice as long as the studio versions. And then there is "Stardust" - four and a half minutes of stunning Ben Webster saxophony.

Did the patrons of these dances know how luck they were? At least some of them did, apparently. By all accounts, every Ellington dance attracted a crowd who didn't dance at all, but just hung around the bandstand and soaked it all in. Karen's aunt Dorothy was one of the lucky ones - she attended a dance in California a month after the Fargo date. The band was Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra.


Sunday, August 24, 2008


Cornetist and pianist Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931) was one of the great jazz musicians of his or any other time. His contemporaries always first mentioned his sound: "Like shooting bullets at a bell;" "Like a girl saying yes." He was the first modernist of jazz, exploring chord extensions and alterations years before Art Tatum and Charlie Parker. He was perhaps the first master of the ballad in jazz, although his ballad tempos were not as slow we would later come to expect. His playing was a largely successful search for beauty in the heat of 1920s jazz.

But how does one make that case 77 years after his death? What tracks do we play for the nonbeliever to convince him of Bix's genius? It's not so easy - Bix arguably never recorded in a truly appropriate, sympathetic setting. Some of his greatest solos are gems set in plaster - he emerges from the depths of Jean Goldkette's or Paul Whiteman's dance bands for four, eight, sixteen, or (if we're lucky) thirty-two sparkling measures, only to disappear again into the morass. Before and after Bix's improvisations, we are treated to clunky rhythms, androgynous countertenors, and painfully earnest "symphonic" jazz.

But it can be argued that the large bands Bix played with were better settings for him that those small recording groups with which he tried to play pure jazz. On those records Bix is a racehorse yoked to a wagon; no one else is in his league. At times it is clear that his colleagues on these records are not just unable to keep up with Bix, they are incapable of swinging at all.

All of this, coupled with the sometimes archaic recording technology of the 1920s, makes for somewhat rough sledding for the contemporary listener. A potential convert to Bixism needs to come to the table with open ears and a sense of historical context. When I first heard Bix with the Wolverines, I was familiar with the Armstrong Hot Fives, so I had no problems with the style of the band or the sound of the records. The Beiderbecke solo on "Jazz Me Blues" knocked me out the first time I heard it - relaxed, flowing, and with impeccable note selection. It probably didn't hurt that I had read Ralph Berton's Remembering Bix, so I was familiar with the Beiderbecke of legend - at least Berton's version.

Here are half a dozen great Bix recordings. They may or may not convince the non-believer.

"Jazz Me Blues" - Wolverine Orchestra (aka The Wolverines), 1924. It's hard to believe that Bix was just 20 when he improvised this masterful solo.

"Davenport Blues" - Bix and His Rhythm Jugglers, 1925. Beiderbecke overlays the basic chord progression with ninths, elevenths, flatted fifths, and whole tone scales, but it all flows together; it never sounds like an exercise.

"Singin' the Blues" - Frank Trumbauer Orchestra, 1927. Perhaps Bix's most brilliant solo, and the first great ballad performance in jazz. This record had a profound impact on the jazz musicians of the time, black and white. Lester Young is said to have carried a copy in his tenor case.

"In a Mist" - piano solo, 1927. One of the few piano recordings Bix made, this mostly composed piece blends jazz with the kind of advanced harmonies Bix was exploring at the time.

"Sweet Sue" - Paul Whiteman Orchestra, 1928. It is an act of faith to listen to this recording. The first three and a half minutes of this portentous and pretentious arrangement are so bad that it's hard to believe that anything could be worth enduring them. Jack Fulton's singing is like nothing you're ever heard, and like nothing you'll ever want to hear again. But if you make it through all that, there is a magnificent 32-bar Bix solo that floats and dances over the rhythm section. It's one of the most "modern" and imaginative things he ever played.

"China Boy" - Paul Whiteman Orchestra, 1929. The huge Whiteman band almost swings here, and Beiderbecke's 16 bars are on the level of "Sweet Sue."

I could list many more, but if you haven't heard Bix, check out some of those. The legend of Bix - youthful prodigy, single-minded devotion to music, alcohol abuse, early death - is probably more well-known than the actual music, but the music triumphs over it all. Long live Bix.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Record Collectors Anonymous

My name is Jeff, and I'm a record collector.

For years I told myself that it was just about the music. I bought records because I loved music, period. And that is the main reason I buy records (including CDs). But, in retrospect, that has never been the whole story. I still remember the first record I bought - how it smelled, how it felt in my hands, what the typeface on the jacket looked like. I love the music, but I've always loved the objects themselves. My iPod is a great convenience, but it will never be my primary method of listening to music, and not just because of the inferior sound. (To anyone who argues that MP3s sound as good as CDs or mint LPs, I would say that your ears ain't that good.) With my iPod, I can't hold the LP cover or CD booklet, see who wrote the third song, or look up who the trombone player is.

I was looking through a stack of blues 45s at a record show a few years ago, and I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be cool if Calvin Leavy's Cummins Prison Farm on the Soul Beat label turned up in this stack?" Two records later, there it was. It was a great moment. Cummins Prison Farm was a regional blues hit for Leavy in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Memphis in 1969. While it's not that well-known a song, I certainly could have found it on a blues CD reissue, but I wanted the original 45. Why? I'm not totally sure. Sometimes I think the blues were made to hear three minutes at a time, on 45 or 78 RPM singles. I just know that I wanted both the music and the object. And what a cool thing this single is: three minutes of intense blues with a weird, searingly loud guitar solo in the middle, backed with three minutes of relaxed funk/blues - all encased in a seven-inch circle of vinyl with a big hole in the middle.

A few nights ago I was listening to an album I prize highly: Pee Wee Russell Plays Pee Wee from 1957. I love this album for a lot of reasons. Here are some, arranged from most reasonable to most insane:

1. The music, which is a delight. A solid rhythm section, including Walter Page and George Wettling, provides a surface on which Pee Wee traces his odd, thoughtful, abstract clarinet lines. Pee Wee was one of the real improvisers of jazz; he was never predictable. The music here is excellent.

2. The vinyl is in mint condition, or pretty close. Okay, this is reasonable for a music lover - you want the music to sound as good as possible, so you want the record to be well-pressed and in excellent condition.

3. The album is pretty rare. Hmmm... now we're on slightly less solid ground. I mean, I guess any real music lover would be interested in a hard-to-find example of one of his/her favorite artists. But you can find Kind of Blue by Miles Davis in any mall CD store, and I'd have to say that the Miles album contains greater music.

4. The cover is in mint condition. Okay, this is just ridiculous. If the vinyl is in good condition, a music lover shouldn't care that the front cover, with its semi-abstract painting, is glossy and unstained, or that the seams are solid, with no splits, or that the back cover is full of interesting information about the short-lived Stero-o-craft label. Ridiculous.

5. Finding and buying this record was a rush. This is even more pathetic. Why should my memories of coming across this record in an antique store on Montgomery Street in Savannah still give me pleasure five years later? It's the music that's important.

The last point states a truth about record collecting: part of the appeal is the thrill of the hunt and the excitement of the unexpected find, especially at a bargain price. Musically, A Fireside Chat With Lucifer on the Jupiter label is one of my favorite Sun Ra albums. It's also one of my favorite pieces in my collection, partly because I paid nine dollars for an album that regularly sells for 250 bucks at auction.

Yeah, it's mostly about the music. But I recognize that, to a small extent, I'm a sick boy. Years ago, my friend Brian had a dream about my record collection. As I remember, he dreamed that I had three copies of every record in my collection: one to listen to, one to read the liners notes from, and one to just sit on the shelf. It's sad how cool I think that idea is.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


About 12 years ago, when I was separated from my first wife and was learning to be single, I got really into three bodies of music: the blues, Sinatra, and opera. All of this music spoke to something I needed at the time: it was all strongly emotional and dramatic – sometimes melodramatic.

My intense love of opera did not really survive the passage of time; the demands it made on my time and suspension of disbelief were too great. (Why do Mozart’s characters say everything three or four times in his operas?) These days, on those rare occasions when I have an hour and a half to two hours to listen to a piece of music, I would rather pull out a Cecil Taylor or Anthony Braxton concert than La Bohème or Don Giovanni. But I still enjoy and admire opera, even if I don’t love it like I did. I am now more likely to listen to my favorite arias rather than entire operas.

During my opera days, I often read about Enrico Caruso, said to be the greatest tenor, and perhaps the greatest singer, of all time. So I picked up a CD of arias by Caruso, and was actually surprised to find that the hype was justified. I have listened to so much early jazz that the crude acoustic recording was not a problem for me, and the power and expression of Caruso’s voice struck me immediately. The CD I bought 12 years ago has remained the most-played opera CD in my collection.

I still kind of surprised myself when, browsing through Wuxtry Records yesterday, I found myself buying a used copy of The Complete Caruso – 12 CDs at the bargain price of three bucks a disc. What swayed me was the inclusion of his first recordings, made in Italy for G & T Records. (The G & T stands for Gramophone & Typewriter; recording was just a sideline for the company.) After hearing two of the discs, I already think that this was a great acquisition. These recordings demonstrate what has been said about Caruso – that he made the recording industry.

Caruso’s voice was apparently overwhelming in person – soprano Geraldine Farrar has written about missing her entrance in La Bohème during Caruso’s first season at the Met because she was in the wings crying after one of his arias. The prompter finally said, “Well, Miss Farrar, are you going to sing or not?” Amazingly, his voice comes across on the records. Before Caruso, there was not a really compelling reason to buy records – they were crude, scratchy, and less than overwhelming. When Caruso came along, there was every reason to invest in records, even when a Victor Red Seal Caruso record might cost as much as a man’s suit. The records still might be scratchy, but the voice is alive and “real” in a way that few, if any, recorded sounds were at the time. What could be better than to have the greatest musical artist of the time in your living room? I know the impact these recordings have on me; I can imagine how they struck listeners whose only previous records were of brass band marches and sentimental ballads.

These CDs are also interesting as a glimpse into the beginnings of record producing as a craft. The earliest recordings are just Caruso and a piano, singing arias from operas he had recently performed. On one record, the singer enters one measure too early, stops, and reenters at the proper spot. They issued the record anyway, just like “Louie, Louie.”

But by 1912, Victor Records is more ambitious, recording a 15-minute chunk of Act II of Marta on two 12-inch records. Caruso is partnered with other stars from the Met, and the accompaniment is by an orchestra, even if there are some substitutions for hard-to-record instruments. (I swear that I hear a tenor sax subbing for a cello or bassoon.)

In any case, Caruso speaks to me in a way that only the very greatest musicians do. Pretty amazing for music that was recorded from 88 to 106 years ago