Louis Armstrong: simply the best

August 4, 2017 at 9:10 am (civil rights, culture, good people, jazz, Jim D, modernism, music, New Orleans, Sheer joy, United States)

Louis Armstrong: born August 4 1901, died July 6 1971


Above: possibly his greatest recording, West End Blues (1928). For a detailed analysis, read what the of the Director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum (in Queens, New York), Ricky Riccardi, wrote, here.

Louis Armstrong never knew the date of his birthday. As Terry Teachout writes in his excellent biography Pops – A Life Of Louis Armstrong (2009):

‘Until the day he died, Louis Armstrong claimed that he was born on July 4, 1900. He said so in Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans and Swing That Music, his two published memoirs, and on innumerable other occasions, and although at least one biographer found the date too pat to be plausible, it was only in 1988 that a researcher located an entry in latin for “Armstrong (niger, illegitimus)” in the handwritten baptismal register of New Orleans’s Sacred Heart of Jesus Church. According to that record, Louis Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901, the natural son of William Armstrong (known as Willie), who spent most of his adult life working in a turpentine factory, and Mary Ann Albert (known as Mayann, though her son spelled it different ways over the years), a fifteen-year-old country girl who came to New Orleans to work as a household servant.’

What was never in doubt is the simple fact that Louis was born  at the absolute bottom of the US socio-economic pile. He was black, his mother was an alcoholic and an occasional prostitute and his father deserted the family before he was born. He seemed destined for a life of poverty and petty crime until a Jewish family, the Karnoffskys, took him under their wing and encouraged his musical talent (including lending him the money for his first cornet). Louis never forgot them and wore a Star of David under his shirt for the rest of his life. That early experience also seems to have conditioned his approach to the race question. He was proud of his Afro-American roots but never a seperatist. He almost always had at least one or two whites in his All Stars – a policy that his manager Joe Glaser encouraged for commercial reasons but that Armstrong believed in as a matter of principle. His closest musical friend was the white trombonist Jack Teagarden, to whom he (allegedly) said on their first encounter, “I’m a spade and you’re an ofay. We got the same soul – so let’s blow.”

Armstrong is, simultaneously, by far the best known figure in jazz and one of the most underrated. The reasons for this have little to do with music and everything to do with image, perception and ideology. Most of today’s jazz fans (despite the sterling efforts of Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch and others) know little of Armstrong and see him as an avuncular buffoon singing lightweight pop songs in a gravel voice. He’s not considered a real jazz musician like, say, John Coltrane or the oh-so-cool Miles Davis. And then there’s that “Uncle Tom” tag. We’ll come to that in a moment.

What is all too easily forgotten in any discussion about Armstrong is the straightfact that he was the single most revolutionary exponent of the most revolutionary music of the Twentieth Century. Long before he became the jovial entertainer the world remembers, he almost single-handedly created jazz as we know it today.

Anyone who doubts this should listen to Armstrong’s first recordings, made with his mentor Joe ‘King’ Oliver’s band in 1923: Olver and the others chug along in the staccato semi-ragtime rhythm that characterised early jazz. Armstrong (playing second cornet to Oliver) uses triplet-based quarter and eighth notes, riding on a 4/4 beat that only existed inside his head. It was the rhythm that that twelve-to-fifteen years later would be called “swing” and make Benny Goodman, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and a lot of other (mainly white) bandleaders rich and famous. That rhythm, together with the concept of the virtuoso solo, improvised over the chords of the tune, which Armstrong also pioneered, was the springboard for Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and most of what followed in in jazz, up to this very day.

It is of course true that had Armstrong never been born, someone else would have made these musical breakthroughs sooner or later – they were almost necessities waiting to happen. Phillip Larkin (an unstinting Armstrong fan)  oversimplified matters, but had a point when he wrote that Armstrong “simply did what everyone else was doing (but) twenty times better.” We know that Armstrong’s New Orleans contemporary, the clarinet and soprano sax virtuoso Sidney Bechet, was playing along similar lines in the early twenties, with a power and imagination that came close to matching Louis’s. But Bechet was a (literally) wayward character who spent a lot of time travelling in Europe while the epicentre of jazz was the US and, incresingly, New York. He lacked Louis’s personal warmth and although he recorded quite extensively, he didn’t achieve widespread public recognition until he settled in France in the 1950’s where he became something of a folk-hero in his final years.

To understand Armstrong, the man and the performer, you have to understand something of the society he was born into. New Orleans at the turn of the century was a hotbed of vice and violence. It was also, in comparison to the rest of the USA, relatively tolerant in racial, social and cultural matters. The French had founded the city and brought with them a tradition of opera, symphony, dances and parties. This had melded with the work-songs and “shouts” of the black slaves. As a result New Orleans was, as far as can be judged, the birthplace of jazz. The city’s mixed-race “creoles” constituted the vast majority of early jazz musicians of note. It is a myth that early jazz was the preserve of Afro-American “negroes”. In fact creole musicians emphasised their French and/or Spanish heritage and tended to be quite disparaging towards negroes like Armstrong and Oliver.

On New Year’s Eve of 1912 Armstrong was arrested for some high-jinks with a pistol and sent to the “Colored Waif’s Home” – a borstal, albeit a relatively enlightened one for its time. In fact, Louis often stated that being sent there was the single best thing that ever happened to him, mainly because the Home had a band and he soon became lead cornet in it. Years later, in the 1930’s, Louis revisited the place, found his old room and immediately snuggled down on the bunk.

From the Waif’s Home Armstrong went on to become second cornet with King Oliver in Chicago (jazz followed the black migration to the new industries up there), star trumpet soloist with Fletcher Henderson’s sophisticated big band in New York, and then to make the legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings with his old New Orleans confrères Kid Ory (trombone) and Johnny Dodds (clarinet). Listening to the Hot Fives (recorded between November 1925 and December 1927) is an education in personal development: Armstrong soon outstrips and overwhelms his old comrades, making their contributions sound anachronistic, stilted, and generally surplus to requirements.

By the early 1930’s Armstrong was an international star and one of the first black American entertainers to tour Europe; Paul Robeson and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (a big influence on Armstrong) were the only others. At this point a big contradiction becomes apparent: Louis’s stage persona was by then that of an extrovert, exuberant virtuoso. Personally, he was completely insecure (remember that visit to the Waif’s Home), always in need of a tough guy (like the ex-Capone man Joe Glaser) or strong woman (notably second wife Lil and final wife Lucille) to look after him. And even after all the plaudits and awards, he desperately needed the approval of an audience. After the last performance of his life (undertaken against medical advice), he watched a TV review of the show in his hotel room and was devasted by the slating he received; he turned to Joe Glaser with tears in his eyes and asked: “You’ll still book me, Joe?”

Louis ‘mugged’ and played the harmless black minstrel to white audiences throughout his life. Younger black musicians and performers accused him of being an Uncle Tom and there was a tiny grain of truth to the charge. Billie Holiday famously said (affectionately) “Louis toms from the heart” and Sammy Davis Jr. (less affectionately) denounced him for being willing to play for segregated audiences. Terry Teachout comments, “Sammy Davis, after all, had a point: the All Stars did play for segregated audiences, and Armstrong never complained to Glaser about it. ‘I never question owners of dance halls or my manager about the racial patterns of places I am contracted to play… I have been with Joe Glaser too many years to worry about where I play and for whom,’ he had told a reporter for the Courier  in 1956. Nor would he ever take part in civil-rights demonstrations.’My life is music,’ he explained to a reporter. ‘They would beat me in the mouth if I marched, and without my mouth I wouldn’t be able to blow my horn…”

But there was one occasion when even the apolitical Armstrong was unable to contain his inner rage in the face of racism: in 1957, three years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision required public schools to de-segregate and allow black puils to enroll. But in Little Rock, Arkansas, Governor Orval Faubus openly defied the court’s decison and the Federal Government, ordering the state’s National Guard to join with a mob of howling bigots outside the city’s Central High School to intimidate and obstruct nine black children who were trying to enroll.  Louis, on tour as usual, watched these scenes on his hotel televison shortly before he was interviewd by a cub reporter from a local paper. When the subject of Little Rock came up Louis exploded with rage, calling Faubus a “no good motherfucker” (later changed to “uneducated plowboy”) and denouncing President Eisenhower as “two faced” with “no guts.” He continued: “The way they’re treating my people in the South the government can go to hell,” and vowed that he would not agree to tour the Soviet Union for the State Department, calling Secretary of State Dulles “another motherfucker.” The young reporter had the scoop of a lifetime and Associated Press put the story on the wires.

Eisenhower later sent the army into Little Rock to enforce de-segregation and ensure the Nine were admitted to the school. Whether or not Armstrong’s intervention was a decisive factor in forcing Eisenhower’s hand is still a matter of debate, but the fact that a much-loved and generally apolitical figure had spoken out so strongly must surely have had some effect.

But this was an uncharateristic moment. Louis was not a political person and certainly no black militant. His background and natural inclinations made him an instinctive integrationist. And he generally let his music speak for itself, as when he sang Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen on the Ed Sullivan Show during the Montgomery bus boycott or performed You’ll Never Walk Alone with the All Stars for a segregated black audience in Savannah, Georgia.

Louis’s sheer humanity is summed up by the New Orleans guitarist Danny Barker (quoted in James Lincoln Collier’s 1983 biography Louis Armstrong – An American Genius), describing Louis on tour, in the dressing room:

“…He be sittin’ down in his underwear with a towel around his lap, one around his shoulders an’ that white hankerchief on his head, and he’d put that grease around his lips. Look like a minstrel man, ya know…an’ laughin’ you know natural the way he is. And in the room ya see, maybe two nuns. You see a street walker dressed all up in flaming clothes. You see a guy come out of the penitentiary. Ya see maybe a blind man sitting there. You see a rabbi, ya see a priest, see. Liable to see maybe two policemen or detectives, see. You see a judge. All of ’em different levels of society in the dressin’ room and he’s talking to all of ’em. ‘Sister So and So, do you know Slick Sam over there? This is Slick Sam, an ole friend of mine.’ Now the nun’s going to meet Slick Sam. Ole Notorious, been in nine penetentiaries. ‘Slick Sam, meet Rabbi Goldstein over there, he’s a friend of mine, rabbi good man, religious man. Sister Margaret, do you know Rabbi Goldstein? Amelia, this is Rosie, good time Rosie, girl used to work a show with me years ago. Good girl, she’s a great performer. Never got the breaks.’ Always a word of encouragement, see. And there’d be some kids there, white and colored. All the diverse people of different social levels…an’ everybody’s looking. Got their eyes dead on him, jus’ like they was lookin’ at a diamond.”

Permalink Leave a Comment

Make America Great Again – with Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown jazz Orchestra!

January 7, 2017 at 4:56 pm (jazz, music, New Orleans, posted by JD, United States)

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 :-)”)

https://artistxite.co.uk/label/Troubadour-Jass-Records

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

Permalink Leave a Comment

Milk and doughnuts with Pee Wee and Eddie

October 24, 2015 at 5:39 pm (good people, jazz, Jim D, New Orleans)

You meet the nicest people … on facebook.

Pee Wee Russell, the eccentric poet-genius of jazz clarinet, has always been a personal favourite of mine.

I’m so grateful to Herb Gardner for sharing his memories of PWR in the course of a facebook exchange a few weeks ago. The exclamation mark after “milk” is significant. Milk was not known to be a favourite tipple of either PWR or Eddie Condon, even at breakfast:

JD: Herb: I’m presently reading Robert Hilbert’s ‘Pee Wee Russell: The Life of a Jazzman’ and have come across a reference to you playing in the ‘New York’ band led by Max Kaminsky, with Pee Wee Russell at the New Orleans ‘Jazzfest ’68’: “The band started off with a hard-hitting ‘Dippermouth Blues,’ with Kaminsky playing a fiery solo and Pee Wee sounding very inventive and self-assured.”
Have you written about this? I’d love to hear your thoughts about PWR, in particular.

Herb Gardner: Yeah, that was a memorable trip. I’ve always felt that I spent a month in NO that weekend. The Haggarts and I asked locals about secret good places to eat, so we had some of the best seafood ever. One evening I got to march in a parade with the Onward Brass Band, including Louis Cottrell and the Barbarins, playing bone next to Frog Joseph.
Pee Wee was always uniquely inventive and unpredictable. When he mumbled you couldn’t tell what he said, but when he played it was inspiring. I also worked a week with him, playing piano in an Eddie Condon Band up in the White Mountains of NH. This was near the end of his life, and my lasting image was of him and Eddie having milk (!) and doughnuts for breakfast in the coffee shop.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Jon-Erik Kellso in The The Land Of Beginning Again

August 29, 2015 at 4:02 pm (culture, jazz, Jim D, music, New Orleans, United States)

Blue Roof Blues: A Love Letter to New Orleans

Ten years on from Katrina, and New Orleans is still recovering. Great progress has been made (no thanks to the wretched initial response from the federal government under Bush), but it’s been uneven and problems remain – not least in working class black areas like the Lower Ninth Ward.

Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, though based in New York, has long regarded NO has his spiritual home:

“I was there playing at the Satchmo Summer Fest right before the hurricane … and then again at Jazz Fest (the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival), nine months after the hurricane. A dear friend took me on a reality tour, from the ‘blue roofs,’ protective blue tarps on wind-damaged roofs, to the devastation of whole neighborhoods totalled by the flooding. The Ninth Ward looked like a war-ravaged ghost town. It broke my heart to see my beloved New Orleans in such a state’ (quoted by Michael Steinman, of the most excellent Jazz Lives blog, in his notes to Jon-Erik’s fantastic 2007 Arbors CD Blue Roof Blues – A Love Letter To New Orleans).

Now Jon-Erik has released a new CD/album celebrating the Crescent City’s partial recovery: it was recorded in NO in April and as well as Jon-Eric, features his New York pal, guitarist and vocalist Matt Munisteri and two New Orleanians – clarinetist Evan Christopher  and bassist Kerry Lewis. The album is entitled In The Land Of Beginning Again, and Jon-Eric writes of the title:

“Why ‘In The Land Of Beginning Again?’ Louis Armstrong spoke of playing this song regularly in his early days as a member of Fate Marable’s band on a Mississippi Riverboat. It was their closing theme. This wistful, seldom-heard song is a fitting theme for this album … as it reflects New Orleans’ resiliency. It is a huge relief to see how this unique and wonderful Gulf Coast city has bounced back and reinvented itself since ‘the storm.’ It seems my hometown of Detroit is now being talked about as another ‘land of beginning again,’ with its ‘keep on keepin’ on spirit.”

NB: I have no commercial interest in this CD (on the Jazzology label), but can personally recommend it. As well as the fantastic music by Jon-Erik, Evan, Matt and Kerry, it comes with notes by the A.J Liebling of jazz writing, Michael Steinman and cover art by Cécile McLorin Salvant – a fine vocalist who turns out to be an equally excellent graphic artist.

Permalink 1 Comment

Louis Armstrong at Mardi Gras: ‘Jubilee’

February 16, 2015 at 9:49 pm (film, jerk, Jim D, music, New Orleans, Sheer joy)

Tuesday February 17 is Mardi Gras and here’s some appropriate music to honour New Orleans (which deserves honouring as it heroically recovers from Katrina):

Louis Armstrong plays Hoagy Carmichael’s tune ‘Jubilee’, first of all at the head of a parade (admittedly, not a New Orleans parade) in the 1937 Mae West film Every Day’s A Holiday:

… and then on the famous January 1938 recording:

This also gives me an excuse to bring you the late Richard M. Sudhalter’s marvellous, descriptive, jazz writing (from his 2003 book Stardust Melody: The Life of Hoagy Carmichael):

Armstrong recorded “Jubilee” for Decca on January 12, 1938, backed by Luis Russell’s orchestra, and his performance stands out for a great jazzman’s ability to ennoble an otherwise pedestrian song through majesty of conception and execution. After making short (if enjoyable) work of Adams’s generic “let’s all have a good time” lyric, Louis points his Selmer trumpet to the heavens and, lofted atop Paul Barbarin’s drumming, rides “Jubilee” into high orbit.

He spends one chorus paraphrasing the melody over band riffs, then intones complementary replies as Russell’s horns punch out the melody in the second. Taking over at the bridge, he works into a final soaring, transcendent high concert F. The balance and wisdom of these seventy-four bars defy explanation or analysis: what divine intuition dictated that he hold the concert G in bar 26 of the final chorus (corresponding to the word “of” in the phrase “carnival of joy”) for three and one half beats, rather than the gone-in-a-blink eighth note assigned to it by the lyric, before landing emphatically on the F for “joy”? Only a peerless aesthetic sense could have understood the effect of that move, one among many, on the emotional density of its phrase. The word “genius”, so devalued in this age of inflated superlatives, surely finds its rightful application in such details.”  

Permalink Leave a Comment

Feelin’ Good with Henry ‘Red’ Allen

January 2, 2015 at 6:27 pm (jazz, love, music, New Orleans, posted by JD, Sheer joy)

I can think of no more bracing, positive and life-affirming start to 2015 than this magnificent performance by Henry ‘Red’ Allen, recorded live in 1965 with a quartet that included pianist Sammy Price:

Almost unbelievably, Red had just two years to live when he recorded this, the high point of a late-period revival in his musical and personal fortunes.

Philip Larkin wrote: “There was always something unusual about Allen’s playing: even at the start he tended to sound like Armstrong in a distorting mirror, and by the end of his life an Allen solo was a brooding, gobbling, stretched, telegraphic thing of half-notes and quarter-tones, while an Allen vocal sounded like a man with a bad conscience talking in his sleep.” I trust it’s obvious that Mr Larkin meant all that approvingly.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Kid Ory: Maryland, My Maryland

December 26, 2014 at 6:24 pm (Christmas, history, jazz, Jim D, New Orleans)

A child was born in La Place, Louisiana on 25 December 1886: Edward “Kid” Ory, the Grand Daddy of all jazz trombonists.

Here he is in 1945 with his Creole Jazz Band, playing ‘Maryland, My Maryland’ (aka Christmas Tree, O Tannenbaum, The Red Flag, etc):
Mutt Carey (trumpet); Darnell Howard (clarinet); Buster Wilson (piano); Bud Scott (guitar); Ed Garland (bass); Minor Hall (drums).

H/t: Hal Smith

Permalink 1 Comment

Norman Field on the correct key for Armstrong’s Cornet Chop Suey

December 13, 2014 at 5:30 pm (good people, history, intellectuals, jazz, New Orleans, posted by JD)

I met up with my old friend Norman Field yesterday, and – as is invariably the case with this extraordinary autodidact – had a wonderful time. The conversation ranged from nineteenth century European history, to contemporary jazz-scene gossip and Birmingham local history. Along the way we touched upon Thatcher and the Falklands war, the arranging skills of Fud Livingston and the reason(s) why Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra left Victor records and joined Columbia 1928.

Norman is (was?) a fantastic clarinet and sax player but has now – for reasons best known to himself and which I would not presume to cross-examine him over – more or less given up playing in public. Suffice to say that people who know about hot jazz (Keith Nichols, Scott Robinson, Richard Pite, to name but three) regard him as a master and oracle. Scott Robinson, having heard Norman play at the Whitley Bay classic jazz festival a few years ago, described him as a “f****n’ genius.”

I should add that Norman made me a clear plastic 78 rpm record (of Jimmy McPartland with the Original Wolverines) in the course of our meeting!

Norman’s commitment to serious jazz research is demonstrated by this article, from his website. It’s reproduced here with his permission:

**********************************************************************************************************

Louis Armstrong’s ‘Cornet Chop Suey’ (1926): What key is it in?

Above: Armstrong’s Hot Five

By Norman Field

This article could not have been written without the generous help of Michael Kieffer, to whom many thanks. Other acknowledgements will be found at the foot of the text.

Over the years, I had occasionally heard that some doubt existed as to the correct key for Louis Armstrong’s tune of this name. The doubt specifically concerned the original version of it, which he had recorded with the Hot Five for OKeh early in 1926. This problem had apparently been around for some years. It had been discussed in the correspondence columns of Jazz magazines; possibly articles had been written about it, and it had certainly been talked about quite a bit. I understood that well known trumpet players had gone into the problem, and that, surprisingly, there was still no general agreement.

A few years ago, I became interested in selecting the correct pitch for early Jazz and dance band records, and found that by applying a few simple tests, it was – usually – possible to be fairly sure of the correct speed at which to play a 78 rpm record, so that it would come out at the correct pitch.

However, these tests were only valid for Jazz and dance records made in the U.S.A. and Britain in the 1920s through to about the mid-1930s; and even then, only when the band included a piano. It primarily rested with the piano, of course, and the assumption that this would be tuned to a standard pitch. I asked the late John R.T. Davies, the doyen of 78 rpm record restorers, whether this assumption was acceptable. He agreed strongly, pointing out that the major record companies (Victor, HMV, Columbia, Brunswick, Vocalion, Odeon, OKeh &c.) were large concerns, recording the most prominent international artistes, and the use of first-class pianos was to be expected, and therefore, for pitching purposes, that assumption was valid, tenable; indeed, unavoidable.

Of course, there are instances of ‘below-par’ pianos to be found on some Jazz and dance records of this period. However, these are probably pianos that are simply rather out of tune (with themselves), and sound ‘ploingy’ as a result. This is quite a different thing from the piano being tuned to the wrong pitch altogether. (See appendix 1.) 

So in general our assumption that the pianos are tuned to standard pitch is valid as a starting point. In any case, if for example, a piano had been allowed to become very flat in pitch, it would be difficult for wind instruments – the clarinet in particular – to ‘get down’ to the pitch of the piano without becoming out of tune with itself. And if a piano had somehow been tuned very sharp, a clarinet would simply not be able to get up to that pitch at all. Overall, the statement: ‘Pianos in recording locations, whether permanent or temporary, were, in general, tuned to standard pitch’ is a reasonable one, and likely to be true far more often than not.

And what actually is this standard pitch? As far as the U.S.A. goes, the note A (the one above middle C on the piano) should be 440 Hz, usually written as A=440. And the standard pitch used in Britain for orchestral and dance music at that time (circa 1900 – 1945) was A=439, a fairly trivial difference, so that the same tests can be used pretty safely for both countries. (See appendix 2.) 

As for other countries, and other styles of music, and indeed those artists and ensembles in the U.S.A. and Britain not using a piano, the application of ‘The General Rule Of The Piano’ must – in the first instance – be assumed to be inapplicable and, consequently, conclusions from it non-viable. I am not qualified to comment further on these musics; but certainly commend those who may be interested in them to pursue their own researches on these fascinating topics. Perhaps they will be able to derive some simple tests to help ensure correct pitching of old 78 recordings of e.g. a Javanese gamelin orchestra, or a Cantonese instrumental ensemble? After all, the correct pitching of any and every ‘78 rpm’ record is an essential part of properly preserving, for posterity, the information contained on it.

About three years ago, I heard of the existence of a CD set of early Louis Armstrong classics that included the 1926 Hot Five ‘Cornet Chop Suey’ twice. Once in the key of E flat; and also in the key of F. This was because, in the opinion of the compilers of the set, there was still no general consensus on which key it was in. To include it, therefore, in both keys was certainly very commendable. But I was puzzled that a record could be attributed to two keys so much as a tone apart. Not merely a semitone, but a whole tone: really a very large interval! In theory at least, it should have been fairly easy to decide which was the true one. The trumpet players who disagreed on the key of the piece may have (I don’t know…) played the tune over on their trumpets (or cornets) in both keys. And then used, as a basis for their conclusion, the fingering of their horns indicating one key rather than the other because one key ‘fell more naturally under the fingers’ than the other. At least, I assume that this is what they did. If my assumption is correct, then I have to say that that approach might at times be deceptive. As a clarinet player, time and time again, I have tried to find out exactly what Johnny Dodds or Don Murray played on their clarinets back in the 1920s, and the more I learn, the more I distrust what seems logical on the surface. Also, as the decades pass, it becomes ever more difficult to even attempt to analyse the ‘mindset’ of a 1920s virtuoso player. Certainly, Dodds and Murray were both virtusosi of the clarinet. They could play anything they mentally conceived… and usually did so. Perhaps intuitively, they ‘eliminated the instrument from the equation’: the music that appeared in their consciousness was the music that straightway sounded in the club or the ballroom in which they were playing. There was no intervention of any ‘problem of execution’ on their instrument. If – as I suspect – they (along with most other top musicians) did this, they were rather in advance of their time. They did not need to read treatises on the psychology of musicianship, the bulk of which have proliferated in the last 50 years. They just did it anyway.

If Dodds & Murray could do that, how much more could Louis Armstrong do it? Louis, from his first startling appearances on disc in 1923, was manifestly a very special case. On this basis, Louis’s cornet fingering patterns, I thought, might be rather unsusceptible to logical analysis. I’d found exactly the same in trying to play Dodds’s clarinet solo on ‘Potato Head Blues’ by the Hot Seven on a clarinet in C, in case he was playing one of those, instead of the normal B flat clarinet. Both fingerings, I found, were pretty equally plausible.  Read the rest of this entry »

Permalink 1 Comment

The death-bed legacy of guitar legend Snoozer Quinn

November 22, 2014 at 5:37 pm (jazz, Jim D, music, New Orleans, strange situations, The blues)

Above: the only known film of Snoozer, with his ‘Snoozer’s Telephone Blues’ dubbed

I’ve been vaguely aware for some years, of a legendary jazz guitarist called Snoozer Quinn. I knew from something I’d read, that he was highly regarded by fellow musicians in the 1920’s and 30’s, but didn’t record much until he was – literally – on his death bed in a TB sanitorium in the late 1940’s, when someone brought in a portable recording machine and asked him to play into it.

Some of these recordings have been available on the internet for a while, but not the complete set and not on CD. Now, Mike Dine’s 504 Records has put out all 12 of these death-bed recordings known to exist, on a CD called ‘The Magic Of Snoozer Quinn’.

Here are the very detailed and knowledgeable CD booklet-notes by Charlie Crump:

**************************************************************************************************

Snoozer Quinn was a classic example of a musician’s musician.

Born Elvin McIntosh Quinn in McComb, Mississippi on October 18th 1906, he was a child prodigy, learning to play mandolin and violin by the age of seven, before taking up the guitar which was to become his instrument of choice.

After the family moved to Bogalusa, La, he became a professional musician, playing with the family band before going on the road at the age of seventeen with bands led by Jack Wilrich and later Mart Britt. He first met Johnny Wiggs in 1924 when he joined Peck Kelly’s Texas based band, then playing in Shreveport, La. Returnin to Bogalusa, Snoozer was picked up by Wingy Mannone who was putting together a New Orleans style band for a gig at Bob White and Eddie Connors Somerset Club in San Antonio, Texas. Joe Mannone’s New Orleans Rhythm Band consisted of Wingy Mannone (tpt), Don Ellis (sax), Charles ‘Pee Wee’ Russell (clt), Joe Lamar (pno), Snoozer Quinn (gtr), Joe ‘Hooknose’ Loycano (bs), Clause Humphries (ds), the job lasted three months.

From late 1925 to 1928 he played in the New Orleans area where he was heard at an after hours jam session by members of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, including Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer, then playing at the St. Charles Theatre in October 1928. Trumbauer was so impressed with Snoozer’s playing that he took him to Paul Whiteman’s room so that he could hear him play. Johnny Wiggs recalled  that one of Snoozer’s tricks was to play pizzicato and hold the chord with one hand and shoot out the other to shake your hand. He did this to Whiteman while playing ‘Tiger Rag’. Whiteman was so knocked out by this that he immediately offered Snoozer a job, and he played with the Whiteman organisation until around mid-April 1929.

As far as recordings were concerned this move did not do much to enhance Snoozer’s career, as he only appeared on two, or possibly three, over the Whiteman period. At the end of his stay with Whiteman he appeared on Bing Crosby’s first session to be issued under his own name and on a session, rejected at the time, by (singer) Bee Palmer which included Frank Trumbauer and an inaudible Bix Beiderbecke and has only recently seen the light of day as a CD issue (and on youtube). Discographies also list him as appearing on the Columbia issue of the Mason-Dixie Orchestra, a Frank Trumbauer group, shortly after leaving Whiteman. His only other recordings were a rejected session for Victor in San Antonio in May 1928 and ten titles with another guitarist as accompanist to Jimmie Davis on ten country styled tracks in May 1931.

After the Jimmie Davis period he played with Earl Crumb’s Band in New Orleans over a long period in the early 1930’s  and continued to work in the South until the end of his playing career was brought about by failing health at the end of that decade.

However, he started playing regularly again by the mid-1940’s, including a long spell with Earl Crumb’s Band at the Beverly Gardens Restaurant on Jefferson Highway in New Orleans. One of Snoozer’s last appearances was at the New Orleans Jazz Foundation Concert in April 1948.

Advanced tuberculosis caused him to be confined to a sanatorium for the last few years of his life. Effectively that would have meant the end of Snoozer’s music had it not been for Johnny Wiggs, who had maintained contact with him over the years and considered his music of sufficient importance to justify a further attempt to preserve Snoozer’s guitar work. Although he had spent over 20 years as a teacher of mechanical drawing and had only recently started playing again, Wiggs took his cornet, a portable recording machine and blanks  to the sanatorium where Snoozer was a patient. The twelve tracks presented here, some of which have Wiggs added on cornet, are those recorded at the time. Four of the titles were issued privately by Johnny Wiggs on two 78rpm records on his Wiggs Inc. label and are included in this set which represents all those that were recorded at that time.

Given the circumstances of the recording the results are remarkably good, with only one track showing any sign of groove damage.

The exact dates of the recordings are unknown but they fall between the dates of Snoozer’s entry to the Sanatorium in 1948 and his death in 1949.

*********************************************************************************************************

* H/t: Jason Hill (for bringing my attention to the youtube  film)

* ‘The Magic Of Snoozer Quinn’ is available from 504 Records, 20 Clifton Road, Welling, Kent, DA16 1QA, England. Tel: 020 8303 9719

* Lots more on Snoozer, here

* Finally, I hope it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: I have no commercial interest in this CD.

Permalink 3 Comments

Bessie Smith: Back Water Blues

February 9, 2014 at 5:52 pm (jazz, Jim D, music, New Orleans, song, The blues, tragedy)

Extreme weather and flooding having become a highly-charged political issue in the UK. So I thought Bessie Smith’s blues (superbly accompanied by pianist James P. Johnson) about the flooding of New Orleans in 1927 might be appropriate:

This is dedicated to all the people of the ‘Somerset Levels’ who’ve had to suffer so much over the past weeks. I’d also like to dedicate it to Lord Chris Smith of the Environmental Agency, a decent man whose monumentally inept handling of the situation and lack of PR skills are making it increasingly likely that he’s going to be made the scapegoat for this fiasco.

But, for now, let’s just enjoy Bessie’s incredible voice…

Permalink 3 Comments

Next page »