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.

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