Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Century in Jumps (Slight Return)


Eddie Cantor, That's the Kind of Baby For Me.
Herbert Payne, Smoke Clouds.
Earl Fuller's Famous Jass Band, Slippery Hank.
Gene Greene, Riff Johnson's Harmony Band.
Frank Banta and Howard Kopp, Calico Rag.
Ciro's Club Coon Orchestra, St. Louis Blues.
Sergei Prokofiev, Violin Concerto No. 1: Moderato.

At long last there's butter, flour and chocolate in the house. But not much of it: only two small squares of chocolate each! It has been so long, it brings back memories of breakfasts before the war. We are having a hard time. It is very cold, which increases your appetite. My older brothers go to work in thick boots to keep their feet warm. But we have faith in France and God, and comfort ourselves with the thought that over in Germany they are almost as unhappy as we are. There is famine in all the big cities: Berlin, Dresden and Bavaria; I hope they all die!

Yves Congar, 13, living under German occupation in Sedan, northeast France; diary entry of 21 December 1917.

Eddie Cantor made his Broadway debut in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917, wearing blackface (he sometimes would black up to play the son of Bert Williams), and for the next fifty years was never out of show business, almost relentless in his ability to entertain. He made records, movies, starred in musicals; he made a million dollars, lost it all in the stock market crash, and made some of it back by writing a book called Caught Short! Later on in life, he hosted radio programs and television talk shows like The Colgate Comedy Hour, where he once terrified sponsors by wiping Sammy Davis Jr.'s forehead with a handkerchief.

Born Edward Israel Iskowitz in 1892, the son of Russian Jews, Cantor was a spiritual patriarch of modern Jewish humor--his voice is found in everyone from Mel Brooks to the Marx Brothers to Jerry Lewis to Larry David. "That's the Kind of Baby For Me," one of Cantor's first records, showcases Cantor as the most shameless golddigger imaginable, delivering in his classic New York accent lines like:

The other evening in a cabaret we spent
And when I saw the check I thought it was the rent
But when the waiter came
She simply signed her name
That's the kind of a baby for me!

Recorded 12 July 1917 and released as Victor 18342; on Makin' Whoopee with 'Banjo Eyes'.

British labor delegation to Russia during the revolution

Among the benefactors of the First World War were fascism, Soviet communism, Dadaism, as well as wristwatch and cigarette manufacturers.

Before the war, smoking generally had meant cigars and pipes, but as months and then years of trench warfare ground on, soldiers began being issued cigarettes in bulk (this was the heyday of Woodbine Willie, the Anglican priest who would distribute unfiltered Woodbine cigarettes to soldiers he visited). The result was, unsurprisingly, the making of the cigarette industry (war was good for smoking--the Second World War would create the greatest generation of smokers in the history of the world).

Herbert Payne’s “Smoke Clouds” is an ode to the fleeting pleasure a cigarette provided a soldier in Ypres or the Somme. Released as Zonophone 1889; find here.

Grosz, Metropolis

"Slippery Hank": jazz about five minutes after its birth, kicking and wailing like all hell. The drummer offers machine gun fire, the trombonist lows, the clarinet player howls above the rest.

Writing of Earl Fuller's Famous Jass Band in his Early Jazz, Gunther Schuller, while disparaging the band's "ricky-tick rhythms" and monotonous arrangements, conceded that the band's records still have "a crude form of excitement."

Earl Fuller's Jass Band came about because Victor Records, having lost the popular Original Dixieland Jazz Band, were desperately looking for a rival "jazz" recording act. So Victor contacted Fuller, who had been leading a dance band at Rector's Restaurant in New York, and he brought together Walter Kahn on cornet, Harry Raderman (trombone), John Lucas (drums) and future bandleader and clarinet player Ted Lewis.

"Slippery Hank" was the band's first track, recorded 4 June 1917 and released in September as Victor 18321 c/w "Yah-De-Dah". On Ragtime to Jazz.

Gene Greene's “Riff Johnson’s Harmony Band” is similar to Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band" in that both songs, while not technically either jazz or ragtime, still catch enough of a taste of the music that they stand out from the more staid popular compositions of the day. And the average person's first taste of the new music likely came in this form.

Greene, born in 1877, was known in vaudeville as "The Ragtime King" and was famous for his 1911 record "King of the Bungaloos," at the end of which he even scatted a chorus. Greene's vocal on "Riff Johnson" is a bit grating and corny, but you can't deny his enthusiasm--jazz needed such ambassadors.

Recorded 9 March 1917 and released as Victor 18266; on Real Ragtime.

Picabia, Novia

“Calico Rag”: an odd bird, this--a duet between the drummer Howard Kopp and pianist Frank Banta, in which Kopp, due to the limitations of acoustic recording, sonically dominates the performance with a series of runs on woodblocks, bells and snare that could serve as incidental music to any Essanay silent comedy. More interesting is Banta’s piano playing, a hybrid of ragtime and emerging jazz styles, where Banta "understands the idea of swing [and] the need to alternate exertion with relaxation, to let the music reach its own conclusions" (Allen Lowe).

Banta, son of a New York Metropolitan Opera conductor, was a virtuoso session pianist who played on hundreds of records throughout the '10s and ‘20s, backing Arthur Fields, Fred van Eps, Aileen Stanley and possibly even Mamie Smith, as well as his own performances, including the first-ever recording of “Ain’t She Sweet." Kopp also was a regular session player until the mid-'20s.

Recorded 7 March 1917 and released as Columbia A2241 c/w “Money Blues”; on the amazing collection That Devilin’ Tune Vol. 1 (where many of the 1917 tunes featured here can be found).

Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra, a West Indian/African-American string band that was the house band of Ciro’s Club, London, during WWI (the horrific name was likely suggested by the club owners), was one of the first black bands to make records, one of which was an early interpretation of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” The earliest recorded version of Handy’s blues is said to be Prince’s Orchestra’s instrumental recording from 1915, but the Ciro’s Club disc is the first to use Handy’s lyrics.

The Ciro's Club orchestra was led by Jamaican-born pianist and bandleader Dan Kildare, who had worked with James Reese Europe and who, like Europe, recognized the importance of making recordings. For all their modern leanings, however, the Ciro's Club Orchestra is also a throwback to earlier black musical styles, as rather than brass, its emphasis is on string instruments like banjo, banjoline and cello.

Recorded September 1917 and released as UK Columbia 699; on That Devilin' Tune (and Emusic/Napster).

In October 1917, when the Bolsheviks began their campaign to seize control of Russia, a young Ukrainian-born composer was hiking in the Caucasus Mountains, having recently finished a number of works, including his first symphony and first violin concerto. The violin concerto was supposed to premiere in November but the Revolution intervened (the concerto wouldn't debut until 1923).

Soon afterward Sergei Prokofiev left Russia and spent the next fifteen years of his life on the move, first Japan, then America, France and Germany, until Prokofiev finally returned to Russia at the height of the Stalinist terror.

After 1938, Prokofiev spent the rest of his life in the USSR, sometimes a few steps away from the gulag, which claimed his friends and even his ex-wife--his work, and unsurprisingly his health, declined. He and Stalin would die within hours of each other in 1953; the demands of Stalin’s grandiose warlord funeral wiped out the stocks of Moscow florists, leaving Prokofiev’s handful of mourners (including Shostakovich) to make do with paper flowers.

Here is the gorgeous last movement of Prokofiev's first violin concerto in D major, Op. 19, (moderato--allegro moderato--moderato--piu tranquillo); it is youth and beauty existing apart from the weariness of politics, time and history. (This performance, by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn, features the soloist Gil Shaham and can be found here; some details on Prokofiev from Alex Ross' new book.)

No comments: