Monday, October 30, 2006

100 Years (in Ten Jumps)


James Brown, Hold My Baby's Hand.
The G-Clefs, Ka-Ding Dong.
Bob Landers, Cherokee Dance.
Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All Stars, Love Me or Levey.
Lata Mangeshkar, Panchhi Banoon Udti Phiroon.
The Louvin Brothers, Let Her Go God Bless Her.
The Skylarks, Holili.
Tony Bennett, Just in Time.
Muddy Waters, Diamonds At Your Feet.
Rex Harrison, Why Can't the English?
The Modern Jazz Quartet (with Jimmy Giuffre), A Fugue for Music Inn.
Dmitri Shostakovich, String Quartet No. 6 in G Major, Moderato con molto.

In 1956, in Norfolk, Virginia, I had wandered into a bookstore and discovered issue one of the Evergreen Review, then an early forum for Beat sensibility. I was in the navy at the time, but I already knew people who would sit in circles on the deck and sing perfectly, in parts, all those early rock & roll songs, who played bongos and saxophones, who had felt honest grief when Bird and later Clifford Brown died.

By the time I got back to college…it looked as if the attitude of some literary folks toward the Beat generation was the same as that of certain officers on my ship toward Elvis Presley. They used to approach those among ship’s company who seemed likely sources—combed their hair like Elvis, for example. “What’s his message?” they’d interrogate anxiously. “What does he want?”

One year of those times was much like another. One of the most pernicious effects of the ‘50s was to convince the people growing up during them that it would last forever. Until John Kennedy, then perceived as a congressional upstart with a strange haircut, began to get some attention, there was a lot of aimlessness going around. While Eisenhower was in, there seemed no reason why it should all not just go on as it was.

Thomas Pynchon, introduction to Slow Learner.

"Hold My Baby's Hand" finds the Godfather of Soul present at the music's christening. James Brown needs no introduction: it suffices to say without Brown's influence, much of the popular music recorded in the last forty years is inconceivable.

Half a century ago, an A&R man named Ralph Bass was handed a demo recording by an employee in the Georgia office of Federal Records, a subsidiary of King. After listening to it, Bass sped to Macon, Georgia, and signed the demo performer, James Brown, for $200. The song was "Please Please Please" (which, according to legend, King's owner Syd Nathan called "the worst piece of crap I've ever heard in my life" but Bass recorded it anyway). It became Brown's first major hit.

The lesser-known but equally compelling "Hold My Baby's Hand" was two singles later, and it follows in the same groove as "Please Please Please". The building blocks of soul have been aligned by now: Brown's vocal is steeped in church singing, expressing both spiritual ecstasy and more temporal pleasures, while his impeccable sense of timing, and "his instinct for a dance pulse" (Dave Marsh) are already firmly in place.

Recorded on March 27, 1956 and released as the b-side of "No, No, No, No" as Federal 12277. On the out-of-print Roots of a Revolution and also, far cheaper, on iTunes.

Johns, Grey Alphabets.

As I've mentioned before, it was estimated that some 10,000 doo-wop records were made in the '50s. It was a rare period in pop music in which the doors were open to any callers. So you'd get a group of friends, find an sympathetic A&R man, record a single. If an independent label thought you had something, they'd grease the wheels at a local radio station and get the disc in rotation; if it showed signs of being a real hit, the indie would sell it to one of the majors. People you'd never met--DJs, label owners--would suddenly be identified as the composers of your song. Perhaps you'd get on Bandstand, maybe you'd get a slot on a national tour, playing 20 minutes a night. And then, after a few more singles flopped, the group would break up, and you'd all get jobs or go to college or join the army. So it went.

The G-Clefs were from Roxbury, a predominently African-American neighborhood of Boston. They were the four Scott brothers--Teddy, Chris, Tim, and Ilanga--and their neighbor, Ray Gibson. They started out in an actual street gang, holding a section of Roxbury turf, and evolved into a singing group. Like many doo-wop and soul groups, the Clefs first primarily sang at church until they realized that doing some R&B tunes was a good way to get paid, and meet girls.

"Ka-Ding Dong," one of the first national hits to come out of Boston, was recorded for Pilgrim Records in a quick session at Ace Studios, on Boylston St. (The guitar solo is by Boston teenager Fred Picariello, who would later be known as Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon.) Because the band was from the North, their diction confused some audiences, who thought the G-Clefs were white. In 1957, the G-Clefs wound up cancelling a major tour of the South, unwilling to deal with the segregated restaurants and hotels they were forced to use.

"Ka-Ding Dong" was released in July 1956, and became a national hit over the fall. On Golden Age of American Rock & Roll Vol. 5.

I first heard Bob Landers' "Cherokee Dance" thanks to the Rev. Frost. To say it's one of the most exciting, fantastic rock & roll records ever made is an understatement. For those who missed it back when the Rev. first featured it, here you go.

Little information is available on Landers, who sang like Howlin' Wolf with a sore throat, or the mysterious Willie Joe Duncan, who played the unitar (essentially, a primitive one-stringed guitar, here electrified to great effect--another name for it was the "diddley bow"). Consider them rock & roll spectres, called into being to make this single, and then returned to dust. More info on the track from It's Great Shakes.

Released in March or April 1956 as Specialty 576; find on Rock N Roll Fever.

Any discussion of the novel nowadays soon strikes the pessimistic note. It is agreed, for instance, that there are among us no novelists of sufficient importance to act as touchstones for useful judgement. There is Faulkner, but...and there is Hemingway, but...And that completes the list of near-misses, the others, poor lost legions, all drowned in the culture's soft buzz and murmur.

We have embarked upon empire (Rome born again our heavy fate) without a Virgil in the crew, only tarnished silver writers in a bright uranium age...

In an odd way, our civlization has come full circle: from the Greek mysteries and plays to the printing press and the novel to television and plays again, the audience has returned to the play, and it is now clear that the novel, despite its glories, was only surrogate for the drama, which, confined till this era to theaters, was not generally accessible.

With television (ten new "live" plays a week; from such an awful abundance, a dramatic renaissance must come) the great audience now has the immediacy it has always craved, the picture which moves and talks, the story experienced, not reported...

Gore Vidal, "A Note on the Novel," New York Times Book Review, 5 August 1956.

Howard Rumsey began as a pianist, was a drummer for a while and at last became a bassist when a friend told him there was a shortage of bass players on the West Coast. Based in Los Angeles, Rumsey worked for Stan Kenton's big band until one night on the bandstand, when the two men argued until Kenton literally threw Rumsey off the stage.

Soon afterward Rumsey was walking around Hermosa Beach, a town south of Los Angeles, and spotted a large but empty bar called the Lighthouse Cafe. He convinced the owner to let him assemble a group to be the resident band, with the main requirement being their ability to play loud. The intention was to prop open the door, blast jazz at top volume and attract customers from the street. It worked--by 1954, the Lighthouse All-Stars were a main attraction. "They operate in a long, low, oblong, dimly lit room with an informal, easy atmosphere for shirt-sleeve jazz," as one reporter wrote.

Though Rumsey was a Californian by birth, he had little interest in the "cool" sound becoming popular there during the early '50s. Instead, he and his band played hard bop, which, to rehash one of my old definitions, is bebop played with more structure and more soul. A typical hard bop number had gospel and blues influences, a medium-tempo groove, and tight arrangements--even the drum solos had structure.

For the latter, take a listen to "Love Me or Levey," in which All-Stars drummer Stan Levey (an early bop drummer, who had worked with Gillespie and Parker in '45) adjudicates among the rest of the musicians, offering a response (sometimes for 32 bars) after each member of the group has had his say.

Recorded in Los Angeles on October 2, 1956, with Conte Candoli (t), Bob Cooper (tenor sax), Frank Rosolino (tb), Sonny Clark (p). Find on Music for Lighthousekeeping.

The Presleys on leave

A decade or so after India became independent from British rule (and endured the bloody separation from Pakistan), its film industry, known generally as "Bollywood," was experiencing a golden age. Bollywood films were moving to color in the late '50s and had become extravagant productions, reflecting the optimism of the time.

Chori Chori, admittedly one of the few '50s Bollywood pictures I've seen, is pretty marvelous, a musical remake of It Happened One Night. It was the last film made together by the immensely popular stars Raj Kapoor and Nargis, which, to make a rough Western equivalent, would be as if Charlie Chaplin and Audrey Hepburn were a regular team.

The score, by Shankar-Jaikishan, is a delight, with most of the songs performed by the queen of playback singers Lata Mangeshkar. "Panchhi Banoon Udti Phiroon" is one of the lighter numbers, a georgic in which the melodies seem endless--there's a sense of imagination, optimism and beauty. While Kapoor is credited as the male lead singer, I believe it is more likely Mohammed Rafi (does anyone know)?

Watch the clip from Chori Chori here. You can find the song on iTunes.

The Louvin Brothers complete the trilogy of country music "brother" acts we've been showcasing. Where the Blue Sky Boys represented pure tradition as a working music, and the Delmore Brothers show the tradition bowing to a changing time, the Louvins represent the synthesis--while entranced with the old, weird songs of their and their parents' youth, the brothers were not mere re-enactors of the past, as their music was sharp, with no traces of false nostalgia.

Ira and Charlie Louvin were born under the name Loudermilk, which they changed around 1947 due to the public's general inability to spell or pronounce the name. The brothers grew up in Alabama, where Ira learned to play mandolin and taught his brother on guitar. One day the Louvins saw Roy Acuff’s huge touring car burning down the road (on the way to a show the Louvins could not afford admission to) and determined to make a career in country music.

After the brothers spent years playing the ragged edge of the southern touring circuit, and even splitting up a few times, such as when Charlie joined the army in 1945, they slowly began to get noticed, getting a name for themselves first as songwriters. By the mid'50s, they were recording for Capitol and were established country stars.

"Let Her Go God Bless Her" is the happy alternative to "Knoxville Girl," the ancient ballad the brothers covered on the same LP, Tragic Songs of Life. Where in "Knoxville Girl" the singer slaughters his girl when she wants to leave him, "Let Her Go" (a derivative of "St James Infirmary") is a resigned but jaunty farewell to a dying relationship, though there is a hint of doom in the last verse.

Recorded on May 2, 1956.

The Skylarks were a South African all-woman singing group from the mid-1950s that included the young singer Miriam Makeba as well as Abigail Kubeka, "Mummy Girl" Mketele, Mary Rabotapo and Nomunde Sihawu. Makeba, born in Johannesburg in 1932, began singing professionally with the Manhattan Brothers in the early 1950s. The Skylarks sang a sort of Xhosa jazz, '40s American-style swing mixed with traditional African harmonies, one fine example being "Holili."

In 1960, Makeba left South Africa, then in the depths of apartheid, and roamed as a woman without a country for three decades, her citizenship having been revoked by the South African government. At last in 1990, Nelson Mandela asked her to come home, where she resides today.

On the shamefully out-of-print Township Jazz N Jive, from which I've offered tracks before and will likely do so again.

Tony Bennett's "Just in Time"--the sound of the contented society. It's a recording as brightly lit as a Hollywood set, with Mitch Miller production, Percy Faith's orchestra impeccably recorded, and Bennett delivering a flawless vocal, all working in tandem to craft a Technicolor pop song, tailored to live forever on the radio, on records and, latterly, in dreams.

Recorded in New York on September 19, 1956 (it shockingly only placed #46 on the pop charts--I really had thought this one was a smash). Find on Essential Tony Bennett.

Rothko, Orange and Yellow.

Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety...Yet it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free--he has set himself free--for higher dreams, for greater privileges. And remembering this, especially since I am a Negro, affords me almost my only means of understanding what is happening in the minds and hearts of white southerners today...

For the arguments with which the bulk of relatively articulate white southerners of good will have met the neccesity of desegregation have no value whatever as arguments, being almost entirely and helplessly dishonest when not, indeed, insane. After more than two hundred years in slavery and ninety years of quasi-freedom, it is hard to think very highly of William Faulkner's advice to "go slow."

James Baldwin, "Faulkner and Desegregation," Partisan Review, winter 1956.

Muddy Waters' "Diamonds At Your Feet" is a remake of a track he originally recorded for Alan Lomax in 1942, which had the more blunt title of "You Got to Take Sick and Die One of These Days." The original version was derived from some sung sermons Waters had heard--in his song, Waters is acting as a traveling preacher, coldly informing the world of its impending end.

"Diamonds At Your Feet" is an urban reworking, with electric guitar, a boogie beat and an altered lyric in which Muddy is now longing for the death of some poor woman, likely his demanding lover. When she dies, he's not just going to tramp the dirt down, but scatter diamonds on her grave.

Recorded on June 29, 1956, with Walter Horton on harmonica, either Jimmy Rogers or Pat Hare (g), Otis Spann (p), Willie Dixon (b), and Francis Clay (d). On the Anthology.

"Why Can't the English" is, of course, Prof. Henry Higgins' (as incarnated by Rex Harrison) lament on language from My Fair Lady, a lament which carries the slight utopian hope that if everyone would just speak in the Received Pronunciation, all would be well. Alan Jay Lerner's arch, dazzlingly clever lyrics, with their bouquet of rhymes, alliteration and effortless sense of sophistication, is the sort of lyric writing that by the mid-'50s, had become almost the exclusive property of the musical stage.

My Fair Lady premiered in New York on March 15, 1956. On the original cast recording.

The Modern Jazz Quartet began recording together in 1952, and, when at last they rested in the 1990s, they had made a body of work scarcely rivalled in jazz, let alone popular music. The core MJQ was Milt Jackson (vibes), John Lewis (piano), Connie Kay (drums) and Percy Heath (bass). It was a jazz institution that was also an oddity--a cooperative, where most jazz groups had a leader, and a group with no brass players in an era when the saxophone and trumpet ruled jazz.

The MJQ began slowly, its members more in demand as session musicians than in their quartet, but by the mid-'50s, things began to turn. Atlantic Records, which was looking to expand into LPs from its primarily singles-based business, signed the MJQ, with co-owner Neshui Ertegun becoming their producer and advocate.

"A Fugue for Music Inn" finds the MJQ with a rare collaborator, the clarinetest Jimmy Giuffre. The Music Inn was a resort near Lenox, Massachusetts, whose owners, as a hook to bring up tourists from New York or Boston, would hold "colloquia on jazz" during the summers. In 1956, the Inn asked the MJQ to be the resident ensemble, a situation that soon led to a jazz school being founded.

Lewis wrote "Fugue for Music Inn" as a fairly open-ended improvisational exercise, though most of the solos are traditional 12-bar blues variations. Giuffre's elegant, legato phrasing provides a fine counterpart to Milt Jackson's dance on vibes.

Recorded at "Music Inn", Lenox, MA, on August 28, 1956. On The Modern Jazz Quartet and Jimmy Giuffre.

Hungary '56

The Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich's fifteen string quartets, which span from the height of the Stalinist terror in 1935 to the detente days of 1974, are, for me, his core works, the private rebukes to his Party-approved public works, the quiet ruminations that parallel his symphonies.

This is the second movement, moderato con molto, from the Sixth Quartet in G Major, op. 101. There are three main themes that enter, one after the other--the first is carried by the first violin, the second (a gorgeous near-waltz) is borne by the cello and the third (which appears after the first theme's repeat) is a starker, "oriental" melody. Like dance partners, the three themes link and separate, weaving around each other, until the movement ends with sighs and a fading of the light.

The Sixth Quartet was premiered on October 7, 1956 by the Beethoven String Quartet in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Here it is performed in a 1966 recording by the Borodin Quartet, the Russian quartet for whom Shostakovich wrote many of his string works. I'm not sure whether this Chandos CD contains the same performance (my version is from the multi-LP sets put out by Melodiya) but give it a shot. The Fitzwilliam Quartet's version is here.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

100 Years (in Ten Jumps)


Spade Cooley and His Orchestra, Three Way Boogie.
Delmore Brothers, Boogie Woogie Baby.
Henry "Red" Allen, Get the Mop.
Big Joe Turner, My Gal's a Jockey.
Moon Mullican, New Pretty Blonde (New Jole Blon).
Edith Piaf, C'est Pour Ça.
Billie Holiday, Big Stuff.
Peggy Lee, I Don't Know Enough About You.
Charlie Parker Septet, A Night in Tunisia.
The Bebop Boys, Webb City.
Floyd Tillman, Drivin' Nails in My Coffin.
Dodo Marmarosa, Dodo's Bounce.

A lot of us were disappointed in the Britain that we came back to...nobody could make it change overnight into the Britain we wanted.

Mrs. Winnie Whitehouse, in Paul Addison's Now the War Is Over.

We're now heading through already-charted territory, as these are the years "Locust St." has already covered once. However, the first go-round at 1946 (which can be found here) was quite minimal by this blog's current verbose standards.

By the early '40s, Spade Cooley, born in Pack Saddle Creek, Oklahoma, in 1910, had become a major rival to established Western swing bandleaders like Bob Wills, and in 1947 Cooley got his own television show, which at one time attracted 75% of the Los Angeles viewing audience.

"Three-Way Boogie," a track centered around the accordion playing of Pedro de Paul, comes from the late autumn of Western swing, the height of Cooley's success. But Cooley's popularity waned in the '50s, and his story has a terrible ending--in 1961, he brutally murdered his estranged wife and was sentenced to life in prison. Granted leave eight years later, he played a benefit show and dropped dead from a heart attack backstage.

"Three Way" was recorded in Hollywood on May 3, 1946. With Cooley on violin, Johnny Weiss (take off guitar), Joachquin Murphy (steel), Smokey Rogers (rhythm guitar) Spike Featherstone (harp), Eddie Bennett (p), Deuce Biggins (b), Muddy Berry (d). On the aptly-named Swinging the Devil's Dream.

The Delmore Brothers, like the Blue Sky Boys profiled in the 1936 entry, were among the top brother duet groups of prewar country music. Yet after the war, the vogue for such duos began to fade. Some, like the Monroes, moved on to bluegrass; others like the Carlisles just kept playing their standards until they were discovered by a new generation in the 1960s and 1970s.

Alton and Rabon Delmore, however, changed their sound to fit the times. With the exception of a few "old timey" numbers like "Take it to the Captain," the tracks the Delmores made for Cincinnati-based King Records in the late 1940s are hard, gritty, modern music crafted for honky-tonk jukeboxes. The Delmores, like other honky-tonk artists, were catering to an audience of Southerners displaced by either the war or a search for better wages, who were now living in places like California or Chicago: people who, as Tony Russell wrote, "wanted a music that both reminded them of the old home and fit the faster culture of the new one."

"Boogie Woogie Baby" especially fits the bill. It's both an electric guitar boogie (with Jethro Burns on lead guitar) and a throwback to a string band breakdown, with the Delmores' close harmonies holding it all together. Recorded in Chicago on February 12, 1946; on Freight Train Boogie.

The bishop's diagnosis is ruthlessly candid. He notes as something new in history the rise of a large class of people who are quite insensitive to spiritual interests of any kind. They live a mediocre life, following a limited routine, taking their pleasures from the cinema, or the dog-track, and such intellectual stimulus as they need from the headlines of the secular Press. Their interest in politics does not extend beyond the issues which appear to affect wages.

These immense populations are the unresisting product of a machine age, and it is going to be uncommonly hard to get through to them any thought or aspiration which might become a hunger for God.

Summary of article by Dr. Hunter, Bishop of Sheffield, UK, Christian News-Letter, 1946.

The career of the trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen is the history of 20th Century black music in miniature. Allen, born in Algiers, Louisiana, in 1908, played as a boy in a marching band; he was a hot jazz player in the 1920s, playing on riverboats and with the likes of King Oliver; in the '30s, he was in Fletcher Henderson's big band, working with Henderson and Coleman Hawkins to create swing. And by 1946, Allen had reinvented himself again, working with both the new generation of bebop players as well as crafting some of the founding documents of rhythm & blues.

An example of the latter is "Get the Mop," where it sounds like the whole band has freely indulged in some benzedrine before recording it. Driving the track is Allan Burroughs, whose frenetic drumming galvanizes the rest of the players, while Allen provides a typically joyous, concise solo. The barely-there lyrics are a long way from Lorenz Hart, true, but the track' s intensity, speed and emphasis on the almighty beat marks it as the precursor to a good deal of music made in the latter half of the century.

In 1949, Johnnie Lee Wills, Bob Wills' brother, had a country hit with a track called "Rag Mop," which Wills allegedly composed along with his steel guitarist, Deacon Anderson. However, when Red Allen's publishers heard "Rag Mop," and realized that it was a complete rip-off of "Get the Mop," their lawyers got to work.

Recorded in New York on January 14, 1946, with Don Stovall (alto sax), J.C. Higginbotham (tb), William Thompson (p) and Clarence Moton (b). Find on That's All Right.

Pollock, Shimmering Substance.

Big Joe Turner, the full embodiment of R&B, also came out of the jazz world, in this case the rough and tumble Kansas City scene. Born in Kansas City in 1911, Turner earned his rep singing with groups like the Count Basie Orchestra and Duke Ellington's revues--by the late '30s, he was known as the greatest of the blues shouters.

"My Gal's a Jockey" was recorded during a slight ebbing of Turner's popularity, when he was recording for National Records in the mid-'40s and getting few hits. That said, "My Gal's a Jockey," when unleashed upon an unsuspecting public, became a national smash. It was a glorious full-bodied dirty blues suitable for dancing. Even in today's sex-saturated pop music industry, lines like "I've got a gal/she rides me night and day" still seem bluntly outrageous. Turner was shameless, and wonderfully so.

Recorded with Bill Moore's Lucky Seven Band in Los Angeles, on January 23, 1946. Find on Shout, Rattle and Roll.

summer on Bikini Atoll

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bomb on Japan, can indeed be defended but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties.

Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, are shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," Horizon, April 1946.

The pianist Moon Mullican, born in Corrigan, Texas, in 1929, was as fluent in jazz as he was with hillbilly music. Born Aubrey Wilson Mullican (he got the nickname "Moon" either due to his premature baldness or his taste for moonshine), he started out playing piano in bars, and by the late 1930s he was working with Leon Selph's Blue Ridge Playboys and Cliff Bruner's Wanderers, both bands centered along the Texas Gulf Coast. He formed his own band, the Showboys, in 1943.

Mullican once called his style "East Texas Sock." As his friend Lou Wayne described it, "it is 2/4 rhythm with the accent on the second beat--and when we say accent we mean accent."

Sometime in October 1946, Mullican was in King Studios in Houston, listening to "Jole Blon," a record that the Cajun fiddler/singer Harry Choates recently had cut. Choates had revived a Cajun song from a generation before, first recorded in 1929 as "Ma Blonde Est Partie." Mullican, not knowing a word of French, let alone the Cajun patois, had no idea what the lyrics were, so he began riffing along, making up phrases on the spot and knotting them together (my favorite is the near-Dadaist "rice and gravy/filet gumbo/possum up a gum stump/comment ca va/cup 'o coffee/and Jole Blon").

The result was a track named "New Jole Blon" or "New Pretty Blonde," and which, when it was released by King in early 1947, became one of the top country hits of the year. Find on I'll Sail My Ship Alone.

I wrote this back in '04 about the French chanteuse Edith Piaf, a tiny summary that holds up all right, I think:

Piaf is the prism through which 20th Century French music is refracted--she grew up learning the chansons of the nightclubs, brothels and circuses, and, after she became a star, she gathered a host of disciples that would define the postwar years, including Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour.

Henri Contet and Marguerite Monnot's "C'est Pour Ça" is one of the most gorgeous songs Piaf ever performed, an ode to unrequited passion and the amorality of love, and whose opening lines pretty much say it all:

Il était une amoureuse
Qui vivait sans être heureuse
Son amant ne l'aimait pas
C'est drôle, mais c'était comme ça...

Recorded in Paris on October 7, 1946, with Les Compagnons de la Chanson. On 44 Original Recordings.

The years when Billie Holiday recorded primarily for Decca, 1944 to 1950, produced some magnificent records, where Holiday's voice, which was at its most evocative, was matched by intricate arrangements; it is the era of Holiday as pop genius, rather than as a pure jazz singer.

Holiday had some trouble grappling with Leonard Bernstein's "Big Stuff," a meandering composition that he wrote for the ballet Fancy Free. She first attempted it in 1944, with unsatisfying results. But on a take she recorded in 1946, she mastered it. Listen to the way her voice sounds like a muted trumpet, to the way she turns each line into a new narrative, all the while escorted by sumptuous accompaniment.

Recorded in New York on March 13, 1946. With Joe Guy (tp) Joe Springer (p) Tiny Grimes (g) Billy Taylor (b) Kelly Martin (d). Find on Complete Decca Recordings.

Wyeth, Winter 1946.

I first put up Peggy Lee's "I Don't Know Enough About You" back in the first 1946 set, which led to the very first comment I ever received for this blog. So for that happy memory, and to share a track which deserves far more recognition than it gets, here it is again for an encore.

"I Don't Know Enough About You" was the first song Peggy Lee and her husband, guitarist David Barbour, wrote together, and was one of her first solo successes after she left the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Under Goodman's strict reign, Lee had suffered--she was frequently ill, was forced to sing in the key of Goodman's earlier singer, Helen Forrest--but the endless touring and the barrage of music she had had to learn turned her from an ambitious North Dakota prodigy into, by 1946, a storied pop singer.

Here, she's in complete control of the lyric, and already has the lazy, sensual tone that would define later songs like "Fever" and "Black Coffee." The music is also quietier, smokier, than the typical big band number.

Released February 1, 1946, and it hit #7 on the pop charts. It was actually recorded three days before 1945 ended, but it sneaks under our usually strict chronological barriers simply because it's so damn good. On The Early Years.

The war has left visible traces here, too, and the damage has been substantial, but there is no lack of desire to rebuild. One day a road from Monterosso will meet the Bracco highway, near Pignone, and then perhaps an almost Castilian landscape will be lost. From the graffiti on the walls one might say that the era of Papirio Triglia is also a faded memory. I see shields crossed with the word Libertas [a symbol of the Christian Democratic Party], the hammer and sickle, even the insignia of the Paeveccu, a kind of separatist group.

Thus they appear, little altered but poised on the brink of enormous change: the five classic towns of the sciacchetra, the wine known to Boccacio as vernaccia di Corniglia...

Luckily, the fishing for anchovies, which this year has been stupendous, hasn't changed. And he who hasn't seen one of these boats return at dawn, half-submerged by eight hundred kilos of anchovies, its oarsmen seeming to plow the waves as they stand on the water, cannot say he is somehow familiar with the fishermen of the New Testament.

Eugenio Montale, article on the Cinque Terre, 27 October 1946.

Bebop, the new strain in jazz, had germinated during the war years--its seedbed was the after-hours sessions attended by swing band players, each trying to outplay the other. The solos got denser and faster, as they became tests of dexterity and endurance. The pace was breakneck, with players cracking melodies and chord progressions into shards, and fusing them into strange new shapes. Its greatest practitioner was a gentleman named Charlie Parker.

Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia" began as a standard swing number, a Latin-flavored ballad initially called "Interlude," which the young Sarah Vaughan performed in 1944. A year later, Gillespie had retitled the song and radically altered its structure, retaining only a taste of the old melody in the opening theme.

Parker recorded his take on "Tunisia" a month after Gillespie did, using a similar arrangement. All is fairly standard, until Parker's solo break (1:17 into the track) which is one of the most astonishing solos in jazz--a mere four measures, it is an unbroken string of sixteenth notes. Basically, Parker is playing twelve notes a second for five seconds, and making it sound effortless. After the first take, Parker turned to his sidemen and said, "I'll never play that break again." But Parker wound up having to do four more takes, each time doing a near-identical version of the four-bar break.

Recorded in Hollywood on March 28, 1946, with the neophyte Miles Davis (t), Lucky Thompson (tenor sax), Dodo Marmorosa (p), Arvin Garrison (g), Vic McMillan (b) and Roy Porter (d). On Complete Dial Sessions.

Mitsubishi factory, Nagasaki

The Bebop Boys was more a name than a group: it was bestowed upon a session of top young players who recorded a few tracks for Savoy in 1946. The Boys were essentially a bebop supergroup, featuring a number of players who would help define postwar jazz: the alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt, who was Bird's greatest disciple, the trumpeters Kenny Dorham and Fats Navarro, the pianist Bud Powell, tenor saxophonist Morris Lane (on leave from Lionel Hampton's band), baritone saxophonist Eddie de Verteuil (from Dizzy Gillespie's band), the bassist Al Hall and the drummer Kenny Clarke.

"Webb City" is Powell and arranger Gil Fulller's variation on Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm," whose chord sequence is the template for hundreds upon hundreds of jazz compositions. After the opening ensemble performs, the highlights are Powell, who at age 22 already sounds like a master, and Navarro, who shows in his pair of scorching solos just how much of a loss his premature death in 1950 was for jazz.

Recorded in New York on September 6, 1946, and released as a two-sided 78 (you can hear the fade in the middle of the track indicating when it was time to flip the disc). Find on the truly essential box set Bebop Spoken Here.

Baziotes, Green Form.

Floyd Tillman, born in Ryan, Oklahoma in 1914, was a songwriter and performer who was instrumental in creating both Western swing and honky tonk. Among his country standards are "It Makes No Difference Now," "Slipping Around," "They Took the Stars Out of Heaven," "Each Night at Nine" (a wartime weepie that Tokyo Rose allegedly had in heavy rotation to encourage soldiers to desert), "I Love You So Much It Hurts," and many others.

"Drivin' Nails in My Coffin," however, wasn't a Tillman composition, but rather was written by Texas songwriter Jerry Irby. It's a standard drinking song anchored by Tillman's low, intimate singing; traces of Tillman's vocal style can be heard in everyone from Johnny Cash to Willie Nelson.

Recorded in Hollywood on February 11, 1946, with Darold and Randall Raley on fiddles, Leo Raley (mandolin), Ralph Smith (p) and Lowell Frisby (b). On Best Of.

And as a coda, here's "Dodo's Bounce." The pianist/arranger Dodo Marmarosa had started out working with Gene Krupa and Tommy Dorsey, but by '46 he was working freelance on the West Coast (he's on the Parker track featured earlier) and was creating a smoother form of bebop that would evolve into the "cool" sound of the following decade. "Bounce," a duet between Marmarosa and the guitarist Barney Kessel, is a bop bagatelle whose modest charm lingers more than half a century after it was made. Recorded in Hollywood in late '46 for MacGregor Transcriptions. Also on Bebop Spoken Here.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

100 Years (in Ten Jumps)


Bing Crosby (with Jimmy Dorsey's Orchestra), I'm an Old Cowhand.
Bill "Jazz" Gillum, I Want You By My Side.
Bill Boyd, River Blues.
Adelaide Hall, I'm in the Mood For Love.
Memphis Minnie, Man You Won't Give Me No Money.
King Radio, Unfortunate Bridegroom.
Jesse James, Southern Casey Jones.
Benny Goodman Quartet, Dinah.
Don Albert Orchestra, Liza.
Béla Bartók, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta: Allegro Molto.
Django Reinhardt and Le Quintette du Hot Club de France, Shine.
Blue Sky Boys, I'm Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail.
Blind Roosevelt Graves, I'll Be Rested (When the Roll is Called).

War is now inevitable, and it will be the most terrible war there has ever been. I don't think I shall see it, but you will. Wait now for bombs on this little house.

Ralph Wigram, to his wife Ava Bodley, after Hitler's occupation of the Rhineland in March 1936. Wigram would die that December, and his house would indeed be destroyed during the war.

While the 1930s is one of the grimmer decades in terms of life and happiness in the 20th Century, it's also my favorite decade for music and films, a wonderfully fecund period. So that's why, while I had originally intended in this series to only offer about six or seven songs per decade, I went overboard with this one. You understand.

"I'm an Old Cowhand," Bing Crosby's rendition of Johnny Mercer's Western lampoon, is for me one of the gonzo masterpieces of 20th Century American humor, akin to Duck Soup, Blazing Saddles, Duck Amuck, 1950s Mad magazine, Buster Keaton's Cops, the courtroom sequence in Bananas, and the "monorail" episode of The Simpsons. It was Mercer's first composition to be a real hit, and the first of many Mercer tunes that Crosby would record ("Cowhand" was written for the Crosby film Rhythm on the Range, in which Crosby starred with the doomed Frances Farmer).

Though the track's not even three minutes long, there's a universe packed inside it--Bing gets the first two verses, Jimmy Dorsey's band swings through one, and then the chorus, a bunch of slickers pretending they're the Sons of the Pioneers, takes another. Bing trades some jibes, then croons while the band goes stop-time on him, Dorsey sneaks in for a sweet eight-bar clarinet solo, and after Bing has his last word, it all collapses into a freakish hoedown. There's even lots of cowbell, for heaven's sake.

Recorded in Los Angeles on July 17, 1936. Find on Too Marvelous for Words.

Nuremberg, 1936: "the responsibility of the individual replaced the irresponsibility of the masses"

We cannot look back with much pleasure on our foreign policy in the last five years. They certainly have been disastrous years...we have seen the most depressing and alarming change in the outlook of mankind which has ever taken place in so short a period. Five years ago, all felt safe; five years ago, all were looking forward to peace...Five years ago to talk of war would have been regarded not only as a folly and a crime, but almost a sign of lunacy.

Winston Churchill, speech to Parliament, 26 March 1936.

armed for college

Bill "Jazz" Gillum, born in 1904 in Indianola, Mississippi, was a Chicago blues musician whose past reputation as a middling journeyman is undeserved. Like many of his generation, Gillum left Mississippi in the '20s and headed up to Chicago to find work and relative freedom. By 1934, he was recording regularly for RCA Victor's Bluebird label.

"I Want You By My Side," which freely poaches the melody of W.C. Handy's "Careless Love," is a good example of Gillum's style, marked by his wheezing harmonica and his confident, sly singing. Recorded in Chicago on April 4, 1936, with Ransom Knowling on bass and his friend Bill Broonzy on guitar. On The Essential.

Children of the Spanish Civil War

Bill Boyd, along with Bob Wills and Milton Brown, was one of the great architects of Western swing. Of the three, Boyd was the most traditional, his sound grounded in the style of a country string band as opposed to Wills' and Brown's jazzier inclinations. Boyd, born in 1914 in Texas, was a mere 18 years old when he formed the Cowboy Ramblers, in which he played guitar, sang and led the band. By the late '30s Boyd had become a radio star and was featured in several Western movies.

"River Blues" is a cover (or a ripoff) of "The River's Taking Care of Me," the latter best known as a 1933 Connee Boswell/Dorsey Brothers hit. Boyd's version, which slows down the beat and salts in some fiddle and steel, was recorded on February 24, 1936. On Saturday Night Rag.

Adelaide Hall was one of the biggest African-American Broadway stars of the 1920s, starring in shows like Blackbirds of 1928. But like her contemporary Josephine Baker, Hall would find her greatest fame in Europe, where she began performing in the early 1930s. In 1938, Hall moved to London, where she would spend the rest of her life as one of Britain's most loved entertainers.

Her version of Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields' "In the Mood for Love" is a showcase for Hall's refined, elegant singing. It was recorded on January 20, 1936. On A Centenary Celebration.

Memphis Minnie might be in the mood for love too, but right now she's just irritated at her skinflint lover. Born in Algiers, Louisiana in 1897, Minnie was a guitar prodigy, a circus perfomer, and, recording with her husband, Kansas Joe, a crafter of intense country blues. By 1936, however, she and Joe had separated, and Minnie was in Chicago, making tracks with a harder, more modern sound.

The fierce "Man You Won't Give Me No Money" features her third husband, Little Son Joe Lawler, on guitar as well. Recorded on May 27, 1936; find on Hot Stuff.

Rothstein, Farmer and Sons, Oklahoma.

Calypso, the island of Trinidad's musical export, is "the African diaspora's most logocentric genre" (Robert Christgau). A garrulous ancestor of hip hop, calypso is a music besotted with words, sometimes at the expense of melody and even danceable rhythms. As Christgau notes, this likely cost calypso its chance to be the Caribbean's most internationally prominent music, a title calypso ultimately conceded to reggae.

One of calypso's finest practitioners was Norman Span, better known as King Radio. Born in Port-of-Spain around the turn of the century, Radio was performing in calypso tents by the late 1920s, apparently first making his name with a calypso about Charles Lindbergh's flight. In 1936, along with a number of rival calypsonians, he traveled to New York to make some records.

"Unfortunate Bridegroom," recorded on April 9, 1936 with Gerald Clark and His Caribbean Serenaders, has a typical calypso lyric in that it details a byzantine, sex-filled local scandal--see also Sir Lancelot's "Scandal in the Family" from the following decade. Find on Roosevelt in Trinidad.

Marsh, Twenty Cent Movie.

One recent discovery for me is Jesse James' astonishing take on "Casey Jones." "Casey Jones," which musicians had performed in various incarnations since 1900, was as much a piece of history to James as it is to us; James transforms the song, most likely using Furry Lewis' 1928 side as a starting point, into an expression of power, a work of muscle and drive.

Recorded in Chicago on June 3, 1936. "Southern Casey Jones" is a bit hard to find on CD these days; you can try the out-of-print compilations Cincinnati Blues, or Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume Four.

Hopper, The Circle Theatre.

Will try to give you the information you request. I do not think that there is any section in the state of Arkansas that the negro would be discriminated against as long as he knows his place and most of our southern negroes do. However, the negroes from the north and east are not familiar with the conditions and laws in the south, especially in Arkansas, and would possibly have a right to feel that they are being discriminated against. For reason they are not allowed certain privileges of the white people. Namely, eating at the same table, rooms at the same hotel, riding in the same sections on trains...

There is no feeling against the colored race as far as his being a tourist is concerned. He has the same road protection that any other person would have.

Marion Dickens, president of the Newport, Arkansas, Chamber of Commerce, letter of 6 July 1936, in response to the Federal Writers' Project, which had asked local communities what sort of conveniences were available for black travelers.

Oppenheim, Luncheon in Fur.

In a series of concerts in 1935, Benny Goodman made swing the most popular music in the country. Goodman's big band became the face of swing for the rest of the decade, led by Goodman's distinctive clarinet playing, and (sometimes overlooked) the arrangements of the bandleader Fletcher Henderson, who began working for Goodman after his own big band collapsed in 1934. An equivalent to the latter situation would be if the Rolling Stones had hired Chuck Berry as their songwriter and rhythm guitarist.

But it is in Goodman's small groups, in particular his quartet (Teddy Wilson, piano, Lionel Hampton, vibes and Gene Krupa, drums) where you can find Goodman's purest art. The quartet was a marvel--players who knew each other's next move instinctively, and who crafted a brand of streamline moderne chamber music.

The quartet's take on the standard "Dinah" features Hampton's softshoe on vibes and a dazzler of a solo by Goodman. It was recorded on August 26, 1936; find on Legendary Small Groups.

Swing Time

As Goodman was establishing himself as a national act, there were dozens upon dozens of "territory" jazz bands delivering swing music around the country. While these acts may have lacked the finesse of the top swing orchestras, the territory bands made up for it with enthusiasm, rawness, and most importantly, proximity.

The trumpeter Don Albert led one such band, based out of San Antonio, which covered much of the Southwest (though their travels apparently led them East, and up into Canada as well). Albert, a Creole, was born Albert Dominique in New Orleans. In 1926, he moved to Texas and began assembling a band, which hit the road at the end of the decade. While the Albert band toured throughout the 1930s, it only recorded eight tracks, one of which is "Liza," Albert's version of a Gershwin tune originally dashed out for the 1929 musical Show Girl. It's a fine bit of swing, highlighted by Billy Douglas' hot trumpet solo. Recorded at the Bluebonnet Hotel in San Antonio, on November 18, 1936.

The Albert Orchestra tracks have never been released on CD, but, in a nice turn of fortune, you can hear them all on this site; read about Albert's life in Jazz on the Road.

So last week, the board of directors of Selznick Pictures, Inc., had a conference. The four members of the board sat around a costly table in an enormously furnished room, and each was supplied with a pad of scratch paper and pencil. After the conference was over, a healthily curious young employee of the company went in to look at those scratch pads.

He found:

Mr. David Selznick had drawn a seven-pointed star, below that, a six-pointed star, and below that again, a row of short vertical lines, like a little picket fence.

Dr. A.H. Giannini, the noted California banker, had written over and over, in a long, neat column, the word "tokas", which is Yiddish for "arse."

And Mr. Merian Cooper, the American authority on Technicolor, had printed, in the middle of his page, "RIN-TIN-TIN."

The result of the conference was the announcement that hereafter the company would produce twelve pictures a year, instead of six.

I don't know. I just thought you might like to be reassured that Hollywood does not change.

Dorothy Parker, 1936 letter to Gerald Murphy.

'36 Cord 810 Phaeton

Béla Bartók composed Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta in Budapest during 1936, a year when Hungary, controlled by irredentists and fascist sympathizers, was aligning further with Nazi Germany, which would reward Hungary with bits of dismembered Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. Bartók eventually fled Hungary to the United States, where he composed his last great work, the Concerto for Orchestra, and where he died of leukemia in 1945.

"Music for Strings...", as its title indicates, is written for strings (violin, viola, cello, double basses and harp), percussion (xylophone, snare drum, cymbals, tam-tam, bass drum, timpani, and piano could also fall under here) and celesta. Here is the final movement, allegro molto, a sort of idealized folk dance in rondo form.

"Music For Strings..." was completed on September 7, 1936, and premiered in Basel, Switzerland, four months later. This performance is by Leopold Stokowski and his Symphony Orchestra, with Edwin Hymovitz on celesta; it's on the EMI Angel LP AE-34481, which has not made it to CD. However, you can find many other versions on disc, such as renditions by Karajan, Dutoit and Saraste.

Django Reinhardt, a gypsy born in Belgium and raised in France, became Europe's first great jazz player, a guitarist whose skills have never been equalled (Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown is a funny riff on the myth of Django). After surviving a gruesome burning that maimed him, Reinhardt taught himself to play guitar using only three fingers, as his two smallest fingers, permanently curled, could only help form chords.

He formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934, which consisted of Reinhardt, his longtime collaborator, the violinist Stephane Grappelli, his brother Joseph and Pierre Ferrel on guitars and Louis Vola on bass. In this version of "Shine", a track that Louis Armstrong, a major influence on Reinhardt, had made famous, the Quintet is joined by the singer Freddy Taylor. Reinhardt stayed in Paris during the war and, thanks in part to a Luftwaffe official who loved jazz, escaped the fate of most of his Gypsy relatives, who were slaughtered in concentration camps.

Recorded in Paris on October 15, 1936. Find on Classic Early Recordings.

Renoir's Partie de Campagne

The Blue Sky Boys are an example of the "brother" acts that defined 1930s and 1940s country music. When William and Earl Bolick (born in East Hickory, North Carolina, in 1917 and 1919, respectively) decided to perform as a duo, they were told they needed to stand out from the various Monroes, Delmores, Carlisles, etc., that already dominated the market. So the brothers first decided to not bill themelves as such ("Blue Sky" refers to the Blue Ridge Mountains) and then concentrated on defining a new sound--marked by intricate, close harmonies and minimalist accompaniment. You can hear the Blue Sky Boys in the next generation of country musicians, especially the Louvin and Everly Brothers.

"I'm Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail" was written by Karl Davis, who performed in the duo Karl and Harty. It was one of the first tracks the Blue Sky Boys recorded for RCA Victor, on June 16, 1936. The only place you can find it on CD is on the extensive but costly box set The Sunny Side of Life.

And, lastly, listen to Blind Roosevelt Graves. Graves, born in 1909, lived in Laurel, Mississippi, where he played with his brother Aaron (sometimes referred to as Uaroy) on street corners and at the occasional country fair. Roosevelt, who was born blind, played guitar and sang, while Aaron, who could use enough of one eye so that he could guide the pair around, played tambourine and sang. The Graves brothers also were in a group called the Mississippi Jook Band (which included Cooney Vaughan on piano), which recorded a few sides that sound like rock & roll, twenty years before it allegedly began. Graves and his brother vanish after the early '40s, with Roosevelt apparently dying at some point in the following decade.

"I'll Be Rested (When the Roll is Called)," a rolling, tumbling gospel blues, was recorded in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on July 7, 1936. Find on Complete Recorded Works.

Monday, October 16, 2006

100 Years (in Ten Jumps)


Jelly Roll Morton, Doctor Jazz.
George Gershwin, Sweet and Low Down.
Erskine Tate's Vendome Orchestra (with Louis Armstrong), Stomp Off, Let's Go.
Arizona Dranes, It's All Right Now.
Smith's Sacred Singers, Where We'll Never Grow Old.
Crockett Ward and His Boys, Sugar Hill.
Jack Buchanan and Elsie Randolph, Let's Say Goodnight Till It's Morning.

I long to devour the whole gigantic globe, which I have loved and wept over, and which surges all about me, travels, commits suicide, wages wars, floats in the clouds above me, breaks into nocturnal concerts of frog music in Moscow’s suburbs, and is given me as my setting, to be cherished, envied and desired...God, how I love all that I have never been and never will be, and how sad that I am I.

Boris Pasternak, letter to Maria Tsvetayeva, 1 July 1926.

Away with hard times and war: there’ll be enough of that to come. It’s 1926—fix a drink and dance.

Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have invented jazz, which is nonsense, but he was the finest jazz arranger and synthesist of his generation (which included Fletcher Henderson and King Oliver). Morton took the New Orleans style of ensemble playing and rarefied it into a music of inspired contrasts--rhythmic, melodic, textural. At times, it seems like every fourth bar of a Morton composition brings something radically new. Part dancing master, part juggler, Morton would drill his players until they knew their cues and how their solos should fit into the larger puzzle (not just for Morton's compositions, as often Morton's "arrangements" of other composer's songs entailed greatly re-writing them).

By 1926, the Victor Record Co. had perfected the electrical recording process, which allowed for far better-recorded tracks (due in part to the use of microphones and ampilifiers) with less surface noise and greater dynamic range. So in the latter months of 1926, Morton and his Red Hot Peppers (who were a collection of top players from a number of Chicago groups, some of whom were also recording with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five) recorded a dozen or so tracks for Victor that are still startling in their genius: “Black Bottom Stomp,” “The Chant,” “Sidewalk Blues,” “Dead Man Blues,” “Grandpa’s Spells.”

O'Keefe, The Shelton, With Sunspots

My favorite is "Doctor Jazz"--it might be my favorite recording ever. It’s hard to reduce to words the vitality of this track--the way it sounds like Omer Simeon’s clarinet could stay on one note forever until he’s slapped upside the head by the drummer, or the boozy insouciance of Jelly Roll’s vocal, or the way each player snaps into place at the end.

Recorded in the Webster Hotel in Chicago on December 16, 1926. With George Mitchell (cornet), Kid Ory (trombone), Simeon, poss. Barney Bigard and Darnell Howard (clar), Johnny St. Cyr (banjo, guitar), John Lindsay (string bass) and Andrew Hilaire (d).On Birth of the Hot.

families just don't go to plane crashes together anymore

While George Gershwin the composer is renowned, George Gershwin the pianist is still overlooked, which is a shame, as Gershwin played with vibrancy and an excellent sense of rhythm. He wasn't much of an improviser, but compensated by effortlessly blending every form of music that caught his ear--hot jazz, classical "art" songs, Broadway ballads.

He wrote "Sweet and Low Down" for the 1925 show Tip Toes (which also featured "That Certain Feeling"), and recorded it as a jaunty piano solo on July 6, 1926. On Gershwin Plays Gershwin.

Lang's Metropolis

Louis Armstrong's greatest work in the 1920s was in his small band recording sessions, the Hot Fives and Sevens, from which came masterpieces like "Potato Head Blues," "West End Blues," "Weather Bird" and others. But to concentrate solely on the Hot Five sessions is to miss Armstrong's larger cultural presence--how many of his contemporaries actually heard him.

"Stomp Off Let's Go" finds Armstrong serving as hired gun in a working dance band, in this case for Erskine Tate's Vendome Orchestra. Tate's band played at Chicago's Vendome Theater, and this track is a much better indication of "contemporary" hot jazz than Armstrong's Hot Five records. Armstrong is all over the track, in the vanguard of the ensemble playing as well as providing a fine stop-time solo, backed by percussionist Jimmy Bertrand, who was a prime influence on Lionel Hampton. The other standout player on this track is the pianist Teddy Weatherford, who was considered the equal of masters like Earl Hines but who, in 1926, took off for Asia and never returned, dying in Calcutta in 1945. (Info from Dan Morgenstem.)

Recorded in Chicago on May 28, 1926, and featuring James Tate (t), Eddie Atkins (tb), Angelo Fernandez (cl), Stump Evans (alto and bari sax), Norval Morton (tenor sax), Frank Etheridge (banjo) and John Hare (brass bass). On Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The '26 Bentley 3-liter

I have read and pondered over your article and I feel that you missed the spirit of the average woman…that the statistics veiled the ideal we hold. I am one of the hardworking mothers, with primitive equipment and seven little ones ranging from the baby in arms to a twelve year old. We have practically nothing of value except a good sewing machine.

You mention the automobile as a luxury…The automobile is one of the tools of life now. My sisters live in small towns near larger cities, their husbands go to and from work in their automobiles. The fact that their cars can also mean pleasant hours no more detracts from their usefulness than the fact that old Kate and Fannie were often hitched up to take the family to the fair.

Then the radio, the piano, and so on, elbowing the washboard and tubs, are viewed with amazement. Here is where you lost the meaning of it all…Why did the mother consent to the purchase of these things? The radio is her answer to the call of the pool hall. Her daughters must have the advantage of piano instruction, that their lives be brighter and better than her own. She stands deep in mire herself, but holds her family up in the sunlight.

"Mrs C.S.,” letter of March 1926, in response to “What Women Want in Their Homes,” an article in the Women’s Home Companion, which had argued that because women were not buying new household equipment, but “luxuries” like cars and radios instead, that women had no desire to escape the drudgery of their lives.

Magritte, The Menaced Assassin.

Arizona Dranes was born in Greenville, Texas (dates range from 1894 to 1900) and grew up singing and playing the piano, first at the Texas Institute for Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Youth (Dranes was born blind) and then at the Church of God in Christ in Austin. While she had a compelling voice, her barrelhouse piano playing is of another order in its muscle and rhythmic sense. Before Dranes, African-American gospel was generally performed without musical accompaniment; after Dranes, piano became a requirement. Her piano stylings, marked by "percussive fits and seizures" (Allen Lowe), can be heard in descendents like Little Richard.

"It's All Right Now", recorded on June 17, 1926, seems to be creating modern gospel and soul all at once. Sadly, I don't think there is any decent compilation of Dranes' material in print on CD--however, you can find much of her best stuff on JSP's Spreading the Word set.

Smith's Sacred Singers, a Georgia-based gospel quartet, were a greatly popular singing group in the South during the '20s. Led by the Methodist teacher J. Frank Smith and a rotating cast of vocalists, Smith's Sacred Singers came out of the amateur "shape note" singing tradition of many Southern churches, and by the time the Singers began recording in 1926, they had achieved a compelling, masterful sound.

"Where We'll Never Grow Old", c/w "Picture from Life's Other Side," was reportedly the best-selling record of Columbia's 15000-D "old time music" series, and inspired other record companies to seek out Southern gospel performers.

The Singers on this track are Smith, Rev. M.L. Thrasher, Clyde B. Smith and Clarence Cronick, with Mrs. T.C. Llewellyn on piano. Recorded in Atlanta on April 23, 1926. Appallingly, Smith's Sacred Singers' work never has been collected in any real sense on either LP or CD, though I believe "Where We'll Never Grow Old" is on a CD called The Columbia Label--Classic Old Time Music, which may be ordered here.

"If you wanna get your eye knocked out/if you wanna get your fill/if you wanna get your head cut off/then go to Sugar Hill." Now that's a lyric.

Crockett Ward and His Boys, who recorded "Sugar Hill," were exactly that--the fiddler Crockett Ward and his three sons, Fields (guitar and vox), Sampson (banjo) and Curren (autoharp). They hailed from Ballard Branch, Virginia, close to Galax, which was known for the "Galax Sound"--a brand of intense string band playing featuring high, nasal vocals.

"Sugar Hill" is a perfect string band dance number, with a repetitive verse form, driving fiddle and an accented fourth beat in every measure; it's sung with gusto by Fields Ward. In the 1930s, the Wards joined forces with the fiddler Uncle Eck Dunford, and became known as the brilliantly-named Ballard Branch Bogtrotters. (Much more info on the Bogtrotters can be found on Old Blue Bus, which featured them earlier this year).

Find "Sugar Hill" on Rural String Bands of Virginia.

What strikes you at first, however, when you are new to this more primitive form of burlesque, is the outward indifference of the spectators. They sit in silence and quite without smiling and with no overt sign of admiration toward the glittering and thick-lashed seductresses...The audience do not even applaud when the girls have gone back to the stage; and you think the act has flopped. But as soon as the girls have disappeared behind the scenes and the comedians come on for the next skit, the men begin to clap, on an accent which represents less a tribute of enthusiasm than a diffident summons for the girls to appear again.

The audience never betray their satisfaction so long as the girls are there...They have come to the theater, you realize, in order to have their dreams made objective, and they sit there each alone with his dream. They call the girls back again and again, and the number goes on forever.

In one of the numbers, the girls come out with fishing rods and dangle pretzels under the noses of the spectators; the leading ladies have lemons. The men do not at first reach for them; they remain completely stolid. Then suddenly, a few begin to grab at the pretzels, like frogs who have finally decided to strike at a piece of red flannel...

Edmund Wilson, article on the National Winter Garden Burlesque Show, 18 August 1926.

The party's wound down, but you don't want to leave just yet. Jack Buchanan and Elsie Randolph can empathize. "Let's Say Goodnight Till It's Morning" is a fine example of the light, dazzling British pop music that was crafted between the wars (though in this case, the songwriters are the Americans Jerome Kern (music) and Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein (lyrics)).

By the early '20s, Jack Buchanan was an established stage star in both the U.K. and America, and in 1926, for the musical Sunny, he first teamed up with Elsie Randolph. Using the formula Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers would later perfect, he gave her class, she gave him sex appeal. They had a wonderful rapport (eventually getting romantically involved off-stage), which you can hear in "Let's Say Goodnight," a song that features one of Kern's loveliest choruses and ends with a minute or so of foot-stomping.

The U.K. premiere of Sunny was on October 7, 1926 (it had premiered the year before in New York) and the U.K. original cast recording can be found on Sunny.