Monday, March 16, 2009

Fleas Come With the Dog

I have felt kind of out of touch with the rest of the jazz world lately. I’ve been listening to (and writing about) a lot of older jazz – 1940 and earlier. Comments from friends and on my favorite jazz forum have let me know that a lot of folks just don’t relate to the older stuff at all.

Enjoying early jazz has never been a problem for me. Yeah, my first jazz album was a Budd Johnson album which featured a really out-there, avant bass solo by Richard Davis, but after that, I learned about jazz more or less chronologically. My grandmother gave me a stack of 78s, mostly pre-WWII. And the first jazz album I ever bought was a collection of Bix Beiderbecke’s 1924 recordings. I liked some tracks better than others, but I responded to the music right away. I knew Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five before I knew the Miles Davis Quintet, Coleman Hawkins before I knew Ornette Coleman, and Sidney Bechet before I knew John Coltrane.

Anyone who loves early jazz knows that fleas come with the dog; you have to put up with a lot in order to enjoy the music. For some people, just the sound of the music prevents them from enjoying it – it just sounds like “old folks’ music” to them. To them I would say: keep listening; get past the surface into the substance of the music. It’s not exactly like learning a new language, but maybe it’s like becoming familiar with a different dialect – once it no longer sounds “funny” you can start to hear what the musicians are really saying.

And the quality of the recordings themselves can be pretty grim. Before 1925, everything was recorded acoustically – the music was played into horns, which had tubes leading to membranes which vibrated the recording needle. You can imagine how little of the music actually made it to the records. Even after microphones were common in recording studios, the music was still recorded onto wax or acetate discs instead of tape until after World War II, so there was plenty of surface noise, and frequency response was limited.

Then there are the strictly musical issues. If you want to listen to the great improvised solos of the 1920's, 1930's, and before, you're going to have to put up with lame sidemen, clunky rhythm sections, sappy arrangements, and (worst of all), incredibly bad vocals. The best (worst) example of this is "Sweet Sue," by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. This 1928 recording contains one of Bix Beiderbecke's greatest recorded solos near the end, but before that... well, allow me to quote from myself, from my blog entry on Beiderbecke:

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.

It could be argued that Bix, along with Louis Armstrong and some of the other giants, seldom or never recorded with adequate musicians. In Louis’ case, how could it be otherwise? He was head and shoulders above almost everyone else in jazz. Johnny Dodds and Kid Ory, from the early Hot Five sessions, are fine early jazzers. But they’re just not on the same page as Louis – he was a few chapters ahead.

I’ve also always sensed the connections between jazz from different eras. Baby Dodds, Big Sid Catlett, and Philly Joe Jones don’t sound very much alike, but they were all trying to do a lot of the same things: keep the music moving forward, inspire the soloists, change the color of the music. And I’ve said before that I never liked the old-time New Orleans trumpeter Kid Thomas Valentine until I heard Lester Bowie – they were doing a lot of the same things. To me early jazz and contemporary jazz are two points on a continuous line, and I like them equally well.

So, fleas come with the dog. Many early jazz classics are mixed bags – the sublime and the painful are side by side. If cut yourself off from those classics, though, you’ll miss out on some incredible music. And those who ignore the past will be unable to repeat the cool parts.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Hipper-Than-Thou Geek and Willie Lewis

Sometimes I worry a little about the tone of this blog, or the way people might take it: “Oh, great – another post about an obscure musician. What an annoying, hipper-than-thou geek!” Well, that’s not my intention – I write about what I’m interested in, but I am a geek. From the time I discovered jazz at the age of 15, I’ve wanted to know it all: all the history, all the musicians, and to understand how it all fits together. I remember (I was about 20) reading about pianist Elmo Hope, and thinking, “Great – I just got a grasp on Bud Powell, Al Haig, and Dodo Marmarosa, and now I’ve got to check out Elmo Hope. Does it ever end?”

No, it doesn’t, and that’s the cool thing about exploring jazz – new discoveries are always waiting just around the corner, even for an old dude like me who has been listening to and reading about jazz for 35 years. I recently picked up an LP of mid-thirties recordings by Willie Lewis and His Entertainers. I listened to it for the first time last night, and my reaction was, “Jesus, this is incredible!” How could I have never heard this music before now?

Well, at least I was aware of this stuff before, mostly from articles about Benny Carter, who plays and arranges on one of the sessions. But Lewis, although African-American, was based in Paris and recorded for French labels, so he has remained obscure. I remember seeing a reissue album of his stuff back in the 70’s, but didn’t pay attention at the time. The album I have is on the French Pathe label. I poked around Amazon and the Red Hot Jazz Archive a little, and Lewis’s mid-thirties material doesn’t seem to be available at all at the moment.

But this music knocked me out – not so much for originality or quality of the arrangements (they’re pretty pedestrian, except for those Carter did), but because of the spirit of the band and the incredible soloists. Carter’s alto playing is superb, as usual, but he also contributes several trumpet solos which are just stunning, considering that trumpet was probably his third instrument, after alto and clarinet. And his excellent arranging features those delicious saxophone soli passages that he was famous for.

Carter was only around for one session (six tunes), but the rest of the tracks feature Bill Coleman on trumpet and two excellent, although almost forgotten musicians: New Orleans reedman Frank “Big Boy” Goudie and pianist Herman Chittison. Just as these tracks convinced me that Carter was really a trumpet player (as opposed to a dabbler), they put me on notice that Bill Coleman was one of the greats. Why didn’t I realize that before? Goudie and Chittison deserve to be better remembered, but from what I could tell, they also spent most of their careers in Europe, so they were pretty much forgotten here.

I would say to check out Willie Lewis and His Entertainers, but I’m not sure how you’re going to be able to. Damn! There’s so much incredible music out there.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Don, John, and the Cotton Pickers

In the last few days, I've listened to all the recordings I have by McKinney's Cotton Pickers, the great band with the unfortunate name. Anyone with a taste for early jazz should check out this band, if you don't already know them. The Cotton Pickers were one of the great early big bands, and in their brief heyday could almost rival Fletcher Henderson's band. But jeez, that name!

William McKinney, a drummer, had a little Midwestern jazz band in the early 1920's called the Synco Jazz Band. It grew into a full-size big band for the time (11 pieces), based out of Detroit. There they were heard by Jean Goldkette, a (white) big band impessario of the the time. He signed a management contract with the band, changed the name (Dan Morgenstern has written, with some understatement, that the new name was "not well received by the band members"), and got them a recording contract with Victor records.

The records, made between 1928 and 1931, sound great today. The band swung hard for the late twenties and featured a four-piece saxophone section, as opposed to the then-standard trio of reeds. Don Redman, who had been writing most of Henderson's charts, was music director of the band and did about half of the arrangements, while John Nesbitt, almost forgotten today, wrote most of the rest. The work of both men sounds very modern for the time, with lots of tricky rhythmic displacement and full, imaginative harmonies. Redman knew how to rehearse a band, and the ensemble work was tight and impressive.

What the Cotton Pickers didn't have was a set of great soloists, although it could be argued that trombonist Claude Jones achieved greatness during his tenure with the band.* Jones, Redman (on alto sax and clarinet), Nesbitt (on trumpet), and Prince Robinson on tenor and clarinet were the main soloists; they were usually adequate rather than inspired. To counter this weakness, Redman arranged three days of recording in November, 1929 with some of the band replaced by the cream of the New York City's jazz talent: Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller, Benny Carter, Joe Smith, Kaiser Marshall. Hawkins and Carter came up with some of their best early solos on record - hear Hawkins' frighteningly virtuosic playing on "Plain Dirt." Claude Jones was retained on trombone for this session, and was seemingly inspired - his solos had always been good, but here his playing is truly distinguished; in solo after solo he creates unusual, original, and very satisfying melodies.

When Redman left to form his own band in 1931, the band was never again the force it had been. Like I said, you've got to have a feel for early big-band jazz to appreciate the music. But in their prime, occasional silly vocals and all, this was one of the great big bands.

*By the way, the underrated Jones is one of my very favorite jazz trombonists; in my opinion he is the equal of better known players of the time like J.C. Higginbotham and Benny Morton.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Report From the Deep End

Like I said in my last post, I've gone off the deep end. The 78 RPM Boyce Brown record I bought hasn't come yet, but I've pulled out my old box of 78's, and I'm having a blast. My old 78 turntable proved to be noisy and unreliable, so I picked up a reasonably-priced vintage Miracord table and a cartridge designed for 78's.

I remember some of my 78's being this cool, but there are others I didn't remember at all, and which I don't think I ever listened to. So far the coolest discoveries I've listened to are:

A Paul Bley single on the Emarcy label. Even when playing a standard ("Autumn Breeze"), Bley is concerned more with melody than chords. Could this be Bley's only 78?

A Kenny Clarke side, with mostly French musicians, on Dizzy Gillespie's Dee Gee label. Early bebop just sounds cool at 78 RPM - very organic.

A two-sided tune ("That's My Baby") by saxophonist Marvin Johnson, who was the in Les Hite band that backed up Louis Armstrong in the early thirties. This blues features punning, double-entendre lyrics and some nice, Benny Carter-like alto sax solos.

West Coast blues singer Estelle Edson, on the Black & White label. Yeah, who's she? But she's backed by the Oscar Pettiford All Stars with Lucky Thompson on tenor sax.

Two red-label Okehs by Sara Martin, from 1922. She wasn't the greatest of the classic female blues singers, but on one of these the accompaniment is by young Thomas "Fats" Waller. Too cool.

Okay, I'm gone; I know it. I checked Ebay tonight, and I've got my eye on a 78 by the great jazz pianist Dodo Marmarosa (on the Atomic label) and one on the Trumpet label by Mississippi bluesman Willie Love. I'm gone.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Jeffery Finally Descends Into Madness

I have officially gone off the deep end.

Everybody who knows me is aware that I am an obsessed record collector. I have more jazz records and CDs than anyone should be allowed to have. I’ve known for years that I’m slightly crazy in this regard. But I have always reassured myself with one fact: at least I don’t collect 78's.

I just shake my head at people who collect 78 RPM records. I mean, those folks are nuts. They’ll pay hundreds, even thousands, of dollars for a rare, but highly breakable, piece of shellac containing six minutes of music. That’s crazy. And do you know how much room a collection of 78’s takes up? Aside from that, most worthwhile 78’s have been reissued on LP or CD, anyway.

Yeah, I know I’ve had a box of 78’s for years; my grandmother gave it to me when I was a teenager. And I learned a lot about jazz and classic pop music from those records – I first heard Sidney Bechet, Benny Carter, and Coleman Hawkins, among others, on records from this stack. But I haven’t played any of those records for at least ten years. I don’t even know if the only turntable I own that will play 78’s even works any more. And it doesn’t matter anyway, because I don’t collect 78's.

But yesterday I bid on, and won, a 78 on Ebay. No, wait – let me explain! I have long been fascinated by an obscure jazz saxophonist who was active in Chicago in the 1930’s and 1940’s: Boyce Brown. And one of his sessions produced a 78 on the Collector’s Item label. I’ve been trying for years to find these two sides on an album, but according to Tom Lord’s jazz discography, they have never been reissued. So….

Well, you know the rest. And no, I didn’t pay three or four figures for this record – barely into two. So I’ll be digging out my old 78 RPM turntable to see if it works. When the record arrives, I’ll write something about the great Boyce Brown. In the meantime, think of me as I descend into madness.