Just in case anyone wondered where I’ve been this week, here’s a favourite singer with a clue:
A slightly belated happy 90th birthday to piano and keyboard wizard Dick Hyman, born in New York on 8 March 1927.
Dick is still gigging and still wowing audiences with his wondrous technique and versatility. He’s as comfortable paying tribute to Jelly Roll Morton as he is playing Art Tatum-style arpeggios or exploring the experiments of Cecil Taylor. In the course of an amazing career, he’s worked with (amongst many others) Benny Goodman, Red Norvo, Charlie Parker, Pee Wee Erwin, Ruby Braff and Soprano Summit/Summit Re-union. In the 50s he even made some commercial honky-tonk records under the name of ‘Knuckles O’Toole.’
Click on the Youtube clip above for a master-class recorded in 2014, in which Dick gives that good ol’ broad Georgia Brown a new lease of life.
It was fortunate for both jazz and the phonograph industry that the emergence of both co-incided: the improvisational music that is jazz was caught in its early days by the phonograph, and jazz repaid the industry a million times over in sales of music that owed its existence to early jazz.
It is generally accepted that the first jazz records were laid down in New York on February 26 , 1917. The band was the Original Dixieland Jazz (or “Jass”) Band from New Orleans, and the records were Livery Stable Blues and Dixie Jass Band One-Step, which were released as the two sides of a 78 rpm record on April 17, 1917 which became a top-seller (and maybe an early million-seller). So far, so good. But at this point, race enters the story and makes matters difficult.
Because the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (or ODJB, as they are known in jazz history) were, indeed, from New Orleans – the recognised birthplace of jazz — but were white and achieved their success in New York. Jazz is, in its origins at least, primarily Afro-American, so surely the fact that the first jazz records were made by five white guys is a practical demonstration of racism, even in the foremost art-form developed by Afro Americans?
Well, maybe: but even disregarding the (unsubstantiated) legend that the black/creole trumpeter Freddy Keppard turned down a recording deal (on the grounds that rivals would steal his stuff) in 1916, before the ODJB recorded, there is no evidence that the Victor Talking Machine Company was motivated by racism when it recorded the ODJB, rather than a black band, for the first time. Where racism does come into the story is the reason the ODJB was such a sensation in New York in the first place. After all, James Reese Europe’s (black) orchestrated ragtime group and Bill Johnson’s Original Creole Band (featuring Keppard), which by all accounts was playing very similar music to the ODJB’s, had both already played New York but not achieved the success that came the way of the ODJB. Gunther Schuller, in his book Early Jazz, offers various explanations before concluding: “Finally, the color lines were undoubtedly still drawn so clearly as to make similar success for a comparable Negro group impossible.”
The spurious race issue has been further exacerbated by preposterous rants over the years from the ODJB leader and trumpet/cornetist Nick La Rocca, claiming that he and the ODJB had “invented” jazz and that black musicians had stolen from them: La Rocca’s racism (or, maybe, to be charitable, bitterness from a Sicilian who was himself the victim of prejudice), has antagonised jazz lovers ever since, and contributed to a general consensus in which the ODJB are down-graded as little more than a novelty act who struck lucky (mainly by dint of being white) and happened to make the first (supposed) jazz records.
Philip Larkin, not often cited as an anti-racist, wrote this about La Rocca’s claims (as repeated uncritically in The Story Of The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, by H.O.Brunn): “Mr Brunn’s thesis that the ODJB ‘invented’ jazz out of a kind of instrumental ragtime is put forward mainly by the staggering trick of completely omitting all reference to contemporary Negro New Orleansperformers such as Bolden, Oliver, Bunk Johnson or Keppard. No reader of this book would suspect that the Negroes had anything to do with jazz at all. Can this be the official Southern view?”
So was the ODJB actually any good, and are its records (still widely available on LP and CD) worth listening to? I have to admit that I can only listen to the ODJB as an exercise in musical archaeology – something that I wouldn’t say about King Oliver’s Creole Band, Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, or, indeed, the white New Orleans Rhythm Kings who started recording in 1923 – all these early bands sound fresh and exciting in a way that the novelty-effects and stiff rhythm of the ODJB simply does not (though the Victor records they made in the course of a brief 1936 re-union are a considerable improvement).
And yet … the ODJB was made up of good musicians. Clarinettist Larry Shields was a fine and surprisingly sensitive player, who influenced Benny Goodman and was respected by black and creole contemporaries, while drummer Tony Sparbaro (later Spargo) was a top-rank percussionist who could hold his own alongside the best black drummers of the day (he was also the only member of the original ODJB lineup to say active in jazz after the demise of the group in 1924: he was still playing and recording in the late 50’s). Even the much-scorned La Rocca can lay claim to having influenced the great Bix Beiderbeck; as Richard M. Sudhalter (in his monumental account of white jazz, Lost Chords) writes: “Visiting Bix in 1931, his old friend Dick Turner found him bitter and disillusioned, complaining that life had passed him by, that there was no one on whom he could depend – and that hot music held no further charms for him. ‘Hell,’ he told Turner, ‘there are only two musicians I’d go across the road to hear now, that’s Louis and La Rocca’.”
And talking of the great Armstrong, it’s worth remembering that his early record collection included discs by Caruso, Al Jolson … and the ODJB, whose Tiger Rag made a lasting impression on the young man and was part of his repertoire throughout his career. Louis even went so far as to state (in his first real autobiography Satchmo): “Between you and me it’s still the best” (ie the ODJB version of the tune).
Probably the fairest assessment of the ODJB comes from Gunther Schuller, in Early Jazz: “Still, in a balanced assessment of the ODJB, its best recordings, like Sensation Rag, Clarinet Marmalade, Dixie Jazz Band One Step and Livery Stable Blues, were an infuriating mixture of bad and good, of tasteless vulgarity and good musical intuitions. But beyond the music the ODJB left behind, it held, for better or worse, a crucial place in the formative period of jazz. It fulfilled the role in a manner that was not altogether unworthy.”
Surviving ODJB members Spargo and Edwards on a TV show in Sept 1960
Make America Great Again!
Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown jazz Orchestra
Review by Jamie Evans (“Just give ‘Jamie Evans’ a credit and add ‘rabid anti-marxist, High Tory, Master of the Wandsworth Hunt and Corbyn-hater’. Joking of course :-)”)
Any newcomer to the world of jazz wouldn’t get far without hearing the name “Marsalis”. That New Orleans dynasty has produced several extraordinarily talented jazz musicians, Wynton probably being the best known
His brother, trombonist and composer Delfeayo is not so widely recognised but certainly deserves to be, judging by the depth of talent exhibited on this newly released album.
Wynton is noted for his dogged respect for jazz tradition and refusal to accept novelty and change for the sake of it. This reviewer totally agrees
So it is a pleasure to see that Delfeayo and the Crescent City-based Uptown Jazz Orchestra have produced a glittering range of styles that embrace a wide diversity (My apologies for not listing all the contributors here as there are so many of them. Buy the CD to find out!).
The title track Make America Great Again! is a tongue in cheek political polemic with a voice-over narrative while Star Spangled Banner offers a comparatively faithful rendition of a patriotic composition.
Reverential nods are given to the great big bands of the past. Second Line inclines towards the Duke with Strayhorn echoes and lovely Hamiltonesque clarinet weaving above the choruses while Symphony in Riffs remembers the halcyon days of Benny Carter.
A homage to Count Basie, All of Me, takes different approach. Sparse piano from Kyle Rousssel, more funky that the the Count ever envisaged, leads us in and, as we suspect, towards the end of the second chorus – Bang , in comes the orchestra.
Delfeayo’s trombone is featured in Skylark and surely Hoagy Carmichael would have approved of the subtle, mellifluous treatment it is given?
The superb 20-piece UJO has had a regular weekday workout in a famous New Orleans venue for six years. “We play feel-good music. Don’t come…if you feel like being depressed,” says Delfeayo. If ever I get to the Crescent City, count me in.
A superb CD which embraces some of America’s great musical forms.
Tracks: Star Spangled Banner; Snowball; Second Line; Back to Africa; Make America Great Again; Dream on Robben; Symphony in Riffs; Put Your Right Foot Forward; All of Me; living Free and Running Wild; Skylark; Java; Fanfare for the Common Man; Dream On Robben (instrumental
Sad and (for me, at least) unexpected news in today’s Graun: the great saxophonist Bobby Wellins has died.
He was one of the finest jazz players these isles have produced (he was Scottish) and could play in a variety of settings, from fairly conventional modern-mainstream groups through straight-ahead hard bop, to more adventurous avant garde scenes, whilst always retaining his distinctive and highly individual sound.
He was also, by all accounts, a thoroughly decent and likable human being.
As a general rule I’m not that keen on attempts to marry jazz and poetry, but Bobby’s contribution to the 1965 recording of Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite ensures his lasting reputation as one of the greats; this track is his masterpiece, IMHO:
Obit in the Herald Scotland
I’ve just attended a long overdue tribute to the great poet of Birmingham and the Midlands, Roy Fisher. Roy himself couldn’t be there, but sent greetings. Four poets who admire the man and his work – Luke Kennard, Ian McMillan, Peter Robinson and Jacqui Rowe – read and explored Roy’s poems, written over 55 years. I was pleased that the opening reading – by Ian McMillan – was Roy’s powerful evocation of a favourite jazz pianist, the now nearly forgotten Joe Sullivan. The evening closed with a recording of Roy himself playing superb jazz piano, accompanying the Birmingham singer Ruby Turner. I suggest listening to Mr Sullivan himself, before reading Roy’s poem:
The Thing About Joe Sullivan
By Roy Fisher (1965)
The pianist Joe Sullivan,
jamming sound against idea
hard as it can go
florid and dangerous
slams at the beat, or hovers,
drumming, along its spikes;
in his time almost the only
one of them to ignore
the chance of easing down,
walking it leisurely,
he’ll strut, with gambling shapes,
underpinning by James P.,
amble, and stride over
gulfs of his own leaving, perilously
toppling octaves down to where
the chords grow fat again
and ride hard-edged, most lucidly
voiced, and in good inversions even when
the piano seems at risk of being
hammered the next second into scrap
For all that, he won’t swing
like all the others;
disregards mere continuity,
the snakecharming business,
the ‘masturbator’s rhythm’
under the long variations:
Sullivan can gut a sequence
In one chorus-
-approach, development, climax, discard-
And sound magnanimous,
The mannerism of intensity
often with him seems true,
too much to be said, the mood
pressing in right at the start, then
running among stock forms
that could play themselves
and moving there with such
quickness of intellect
that shapes flaw and fuse,
altering without much sign,
so wrapped up in thoroughness
it can sound bluff, bustling,
just big-handed stuff-
belied by what drives him in
to make rigid, display,
shout and abscond, rather
than just let it come, let it go-
And that thing is his mood:
A feeling violent and ordinary
That runs in standard forms so
wrapped up in clarity
that fingers following his
through figures that sound obvious
find corners everywhere,
marks of invention, wakefulness;
the rapid and perverse
tracks that ordinary feelings
make when they get driven
hard enough against time.
Pianist Jess Stacy was born 11 Aug 1904, died 1 July 1995:
Above: live performance of Wholly Cats, c 1940 with the Benny Goodman Sextet inc Count Basie and Charlie Christian
There is some doubt about Charlie Christian’s date of birth, but most informed opinion now puts it at 29 July 1916.
Charlie was a very important and influential musician, revered in jazz circles as a pioneer (though not the inventor) of the electric guitar and a precursor of the bebop revolution, though he died in March 1942 (of TB, like many other great African American musicians of that generation), before Parker and Gillespie put bebop (or just plain ‘bop’, as it became) on the jazz map.
But his influence goes far beyond jazz, and continues to permeate all of popular music right up to the present day, due to his mastery of the electric guitar. I think it’s fair to say that Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King and George Benson are Charlie Christian’s children just as much as Barney Kessel, Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery.
Christian’s big break came in 1939, when an initially unenthusiastic Benny Goodman was persuaded (by John Hammond, Goodman’s socialite brother-in-law and a keen champion of racially-integrated jazz) to recruit him for the Goodman Sextet.
Goodman’s biographer James Lincoln Collier (in Benny Goodman And The Swing Era) gives a good account of how Charlie’s influence and musical ideas developed from there:
Although Christian eventually played with the [Benny Goodman] big band for a brief period before his death, for the most part he played only in the Sextet, and it was with the small group that he made an enduring mark on jazz. Aside from bringing the electric guitar to national attention, he is best known for having contributed ideas to the bop movement which would begin to coalesce around 1942. For one thing, Christian was using some of the upper notes of the chord — ninths and elevenths — more frequently than other jazz players. He was also prone to substitute a diminished chord for the dominant seventh in places. The boppers would eventually develop these practices to the point where chromatic alterations and the upper-chord notes would be a major characteristic of the music.
For a second thing, Christian liked to use long lines of unaccented eighth notes. This was in part due to the nature of his instrument. It cannot be made to accent notes with anything like the subtlety of a wind instrument. But it was also a matter of taste — Charlie Christian liked to run long lines. There is a surprising lack of syncopation in his work. The use of long lines of relatively uninflected notes also became a characteristic of bebop.
Christian habitually phrased against the grain of the tune. Jazz musicians have always played asymmetrical phrases, but there is nonetheless a tendency to design a solo to match the two-, four- and eight-bar segments most tunes are constructed of. Christian persistently played phrases of odd lengths — one of three-and-a-half bars, followed by another of five, and then one of two — interjected at irregular points in the chorus. This use of disjunctive phrasing was also typical of bebop.
Finally, Christian frequently ended phrases on the second half of the last beat of a measure. This is the weakest point in a measure, and in most standard music, ranging from the operas of Mozart to the worst material from Tin Pan Alley, phrases are ended at stronger points, often at the first beat of a measure. But this inclination to plunk down at a weak point also became a characteristic of bebop.
(from Benny Goodman And The Swing Era by James Lincoln Collier, pub: Oxford 1989).
But, as it turned out, Charlie Christian didn’t live to see or hear the musical revolution he’d set in train: in 1941 he contracted TB and died in March 1942 from associated pneumonia in a Staten Island sanatorium. He was buried in Harlem in the cheapest coffin available. His advocate, John Hammond, wrote, “He was a sweet loving man with few defences against the world. His only resource was his music and when he was unable to play he was unable to live.”
[NB: I’d like to acknowledge the assistance of Digby Fairweather’s entry on Charlie Christian in the Rough Guide To Jazz, by Carr, Fairweather and Priestly, 1995]
Things have been a bit depressing for many of us lately, so let me bring a little bit of joy into your lives, courtesy Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller, who was born this day in New York, 1904.
Here is the “Harmful Little Armful” himself in the 1943 film Stormy Weather, also featuring drummer Zutty Singleton, bassist Slam Stewart, Benny Carter on trumpet, Lena Horne and dancer Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.
Fats died shortly after this was filmed, but you’d never for a moment guess that from the sheer joie de vivre of this performance of his own most famous tune: