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CD: UNISSUED ON 78s: LOUIS ARMSTRONG, BLANCHE CALLOWAY AND CLARENCE WILLIAMS, 1929-1938: Retrieval RTR79077 www.challengerecords.com
This fourth volume of the title, comprises recordings of Louis Armstrong, Blanche Calloway and Clarence Williams. Chris Ellis concedes with his customary intellectual honesty that some of them have previously appeared on LPs and on CDs but let that not deter you.
Tracks 1-6 are the non-vocal Armstrong takes unearthed by the indefatigable Mike Brooks and destined some sixty years ago for the South American market (that may not have become accustomed to the guttural vocals) but were shelved. The two takes of After You’ve Gone, nominally by the Carroll Dickerson band, were recorded in November 1929. Armstrong was at his peak, his power and drive thrilling and astonishing. The band is really a later Hot Five, augmented by a second trumpet, two additional reeds, Gene Anderson replacing Earl Hines and with Pete Briggs back from the May 1927 Hot Sevens. Fred Robinson and Jimmy Strong, in my opinion, excelled themselves.
A fortnight later Armstrong headed the Luis Russell Orchestra, remaining in tremendous form, recording I Ain’t Got Nobody, Dallas Blues and two takes of St. Louis Blues. Armstrong unusually gave the other men more solo space that was his wont, both hitherto and even more so in future years. Indeed, the opening solo on St. Louis Blues is unquestionably from Henry Allen. He and J.C. Higginbotham are outstanding. It would be painting the lily to go beyond observing that the Russell rhythm section was unsurpassed at the time, propelled by the powerful bass of Pops Foster. Those who have yet to hear these alternative takes are in for a wonderful surprise.
Cab Calloway’s older sister Blanche made her mark in vaudeville in the mid-20s. I am aware of only one earlier CD, Le Jazz 109, that appeared as long ago as 1990 (and there were LPs on French and German RCA and on Harlequin many years ago). This contained her coupling accompanied by Armstrong and Richard Jones from 1925, her three with Reuben Reeves, thirteen Victors and some later Vocalion and Banner sides. The great attraction here is that these eleven Victors are alternative takes, none of them previously issued. Her voice is, like her brother’s, something of an acquired taste but one is soon seduced by her raucous and splendidly undisciplined shouts and growls. She took over the Andy Kirk band in 1931 and first recorded with her Joy Boys (with Kirk still in the band at that time playing tuba) on 2 March of that year. She is more convincing and exciting on the up-tempo numbers such as Just A Crazy Song and even more so on the storming I Got What It Takes where the brass section really takes off after her frenetic vocal, than on the (is this possible?!) more sober sides. She must have been a sight to see in vaudeville. Other sides here are There’s Rhythm In The River, Sugar Blues, I’m Getting Myself Ready For You, Loveless Love, Misery, It’s Right Here For You, It Look Likes Susie, Without That Gal (she sings “without that man”) and Make Me Know It. Her sidemen get plenty of solo space. Edgar ‘Puddinghead’ Battle is prominent. A young Ben Webster, the largely unrecognised reed player Booker Pittman (who spent much of his working life in South America, dying in Brazil in 1969), trumpeter Clarence Smith and Mary Lou Williams are also featured.
The six sides from the ever-industrious Clarence Williams range from 1934 to 1938 and on four of which he enjoys his own voice. All but the final track are, however, redeemed by Ed Allen, Cecil Scott and others. OKeh unaccountably rejected the sprightly Kentucky with Allen, Buster Bailey and the remarkably consistent Prince Robinson who, I feel, has never been accorded as much praise as he deserves. It is worth pointing out that he is present on all of the 27 McKinney’s Cotton Pickers Victor dates except for those of 5, 6 and 7 November 1929. Jungle Crawl is rather pedestrian but Savin’ Up For Baby is a delightfully jaunty number (and with Richard Fullbright on brass, not string, bass as is shown in the discographical notes). Black Girl is pleasingly mournful and this and the other two titles from the same session, A Foolish Little Girl Like You and There’s Gonna Be The Devil To Pay, feature regulars Ed Allen and Cecil Scott and also Wilbur de Paris. The final track, Hop On Me Blues, is the last from a seven title session of Clarence Williams’ Trio in 1938. Here we have a Williams vocal accompanied by himself and Cozy Cole but without, thankfully, the electric organ of Don Baker who drops out for this and the penultimate side from the session.
None of this is top class Clarence Williams but the glorious Armstrong and the hilarious Blanche Calloway make this a highly desirable purchase.
BOOK: RALPH PEER AND THE MAKING OF POPULAR ROOTS MUSIC. By Barry Mazor. Pub. by Chicago Review Press, 2014. 316 pp Hardbound, illus. ISBN 9781613740217. $28.95 (US), $34.95 (Canada). www.chicagoreviewpress.com
At the time of Richard Sudhalter’s death in 2008, he was at work on a book-length study of Ralph Peer (1892-1960), whose remarkable career included multiple roles in the record industry before the mid-‘30s and the creation of a music publishing house that continues to thrive.(1) When Peer signed with the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1926, it marked the company’s overdue entry into the “race” and “hillbilly” music arenas. In 1923 Victor released a handful of blues and mildly jazzy discs by Rosa Henderson, the Arthur Gibbs Gang, Sissle and Blake, Lizzie Miles, Armand J. Piron’s orchestra, James P. Johnson and a few others. Except for a handful of records by Kelly Harrell and the Fiddlin’ Powers Family, the label did little for country music, despite selling a reported million copies of Vernon Dalhart’s Prisoner’s Song. Otherwise Victor abstained until Peer approached the company after working for Columbia in the 1910s and OKeh thereafter, making his bones by identifying new markets for blues and country music and providing exceptionally good records for them.
The oft-cited June 1923 trip to Atlanta for OKeh showed that he was willing to go where the music was instead of waiting for it to come to him. Though the author calls the occasion “the beginning of on-location recording,” it was not unprecedented. Location recordings had been made for a quarter-century before Peer’s Atlanta trip - Fred Gaisberg travelled throughout Europe and India for Berliner in the late 1890s and Edison advertised Cantonese opera excerpts made in San Francisco in 1902. By 1907 Victor/Zonophone and Columbia had traveled to Havana, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Honolulu and the Far East, to stake out new territories and make records throughout the Americas and parts of Southeast Asia. But before Peer visited Atlanta there was little perceived need for domestically produced records outside New York/New Jersey and there were no professional studios to make them. Even top-flight dance bands like those of Art Hickman and Paul Whiteman (San Francisco) and the Isham Jones and Benson orchestras of Chicago had to travel east to record.
The situation changed when early radio created an interest in regional music and pioneer stations overflowed with homegrown talent that listeners could enjoy hundreds of miles away. Music from the South had a broad appeal and created markets for new records offering Appalachian fiddling, St. Louis blues and other regional specialties. Peer quickly caught on after reluctantly recording Fiddlin’ John Carson, whose rough and ready songs were accompanied only by his fiddle. As with Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues in 1920, Carson’s sales surprised him and the record created a major new genre as it became country music’s genesis.
In Chicago a few days later, he recruited the King Oliver and Erskine Tate bands, along with Greek, Czech, Lithuanian, Polish, German and Italian performers for OKeh’s various foreign language series. In October 1923 he went to St. Louis to make the first Bennie Moten records and back to Chicago for new records by Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton. By the end of 1925 Peer had created an impressive catalog, with records from New York, Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis, Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Detroit, Dallas, and even Asheville, North Carolina, Annapolis, Maryland and St. Petersburg, Florida.
Trips to New Orleans in 1924 and 1925 were especially noteworthy, yielding some of the best black and white jazz of the acoustic era. Four of only five African American groups to record in 1920s New Orleans were put on records by Ralph Peer: the Fate Marable band and Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Orchestra for OKeh, and the Louis Dumaine and Jones-Collins bands for Victor. First class white outfits included the Johnny Bayersdorffer and Anthony Parenti bands, the Original New Orleans Rhythm Kings and Halfway House Orchestra, all displaying crackling energy and spontaneity. A comparison of OKeh’s NORK and Parenti records from January 1925 with the sluggish ones they made for Victor two months later demonstrates that Peer appreciated good jazz and understood how to record it.
In New York, Clarence Williams’ connections to OKeh spanned the entire decade. The author describes him as a full time OKeh “A&R assistant [and] good session organizer.” As composer, performer, facilitator, publisher and talent scout, Williams became a major presence by 1923 when OKeh’s 8000 series went into high gear. Williams knew teen-aged Louis Armstrong in New Orleans before Peer encountered him in Chicago with King Oliver in 1923. While in New York and working full time in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, Armstrong moonlighted on Clarence Williams Blue Five records in 1924-5 and on numerous OKeh and Columbia blues dates. The first Hot Five records from November 1925 were modeled on Blue Five sessions and made with handpicked New Orleans expatriates immediately after Lil and Louis Armstrong returned to Chicago. It marked the occasion when Peer put Louis’ name on records for the first time.
After a dispute with Otto Heinemann abruptly ended Peer’s OKeh tenure early in 1926, he successfully proposed to work at Victor without salary if he could control copyrights of original material he recorded. Victor’s first “race” records since 1923 were recorded in July and August 1926 by the Savoy Bearcats, Thomas Morris’s Hot Babies, the Taskiana Four, Margaret Johnson and Mike Jackson, sampling jazz, gospel, blues and comedy. They were released in a group of eight discs (20178-20185). Sessions by Rev. J.M. Gates, Leecan & Cooksey, Rev. Mose Doolittle and Elizabeth Smith followed in September, with Chicago records by the Pace Jubilee Singers and Jelly Roll Morton. Peer had already recorded Morris, Morton and Johnson for OKeh. Rev. Gates continued to record for Victor, OKeh and other labels for several years, as did Ernest Stoneman, Peer’s friend and country music mentor since 1924, who made his own Victor debut in 1926.
Peer headed south on Victor’s behalf in February 1927, recording 106 titles in Atlanta, Memphis and New Orleans. His finds included the Carolina Tar Heels and Georgia Yellow Hammers string bands, Richard (Rabbit) Brown, A.C. and Mamie Forehand, the Memphis Jug Band, Johnny (Hyman) Wiggs, and Louis Dumaine’s Jazzola Eight. As their records began to appear that summer, Peer went to Bristol, Tennessee and Charlotte, North Carolina for more country music. A Savannah, Georgia stop featured Jacksonville, Florida performers, including Blue Steele’s orchestra, Ross’ De Luxe Syncopators and the Jacksonville Harmony Trio with piano virtuoso Matthew Emmanuel “Sugar” Underwood, whose solo performances were a high point of the sessions.
Thereafter Peer gave jazz less attention on southern trips, perceiving that profitable copyrights would more likely be pop songs than blues and stomps. Blue Steele recorded again in Memphis along with other groups led by Jimmie Lunceford, Slim Lamar, Mart Britt, Snooks Friedman and the Charley Williamson Beale Street Frolic Orchestra from the Palace Theater. Contemporary jazz came from Chicago and New York, where McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Duke Ellington, Clifford Hayes, Fess Williams, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Bennie Moten and Fats Waller regularly made Victor records.
Ernest Stoneman steered Peer to Bristol in July 1927 where they encountered Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, today’s best remembered performers from country music’s early years. Though not exactly professionals, they knew lots of copyrightable songs and came up with more on a regular basis. The Carters had a knack for simplifying old songs and making them eligible for new copyrights that Peer nailed down at every opportunity. Rodgers had a warm, relaxed southern baritone voice and pioneered a radio- and record-friendly style that influenced a generation of country crooners. His sister-in-law Elsie McWilliams wrote songs for him as did his friends and fans, and Jimmie could construct a new Blue Yodel himself whenever one was needed. Peer came to appreciate his cross-over appeal when the Victor house orchestra recorded polite dance arrangements of Away Out on the Mountain and Blue Yodel No. 1 in 1928. Further hits were covered by the dance bands of Boyd Senter, Tal Henry and even King Oliver. A few were translated into Cajun French by Roy Gonzales (Paramount) and Sydney Landry (Columbia).
Bristol, the Carters and Rodgers are treated in a lengthy chapter that adds new details but is nonetheless a retelling of existing accounts that all but ignores comparable (if less eulogized) artists, including Blind Alfred Reed, B.F. Shelton, El Watson, the Shelor and Baker families, Norman Edmonds and J.P. Nester, Ernest Phipps’ Holiness Singers, the Bull Mountain Moonshiners and Tenneva Ramblers, all either barely mentioned or omitted entirely. Fortunately a box set, The Bristol Sessions (Bear Family BCD 16094), includes all surviving Bristol masters and is generously documented and annotated.
New copyrights accrued on a regular basis and Peer created the Southern Music Publishing Co., Inc. in 1928 to administer them. Noting its success, Victor acquired the company in December 1928 and assigned Peer a percentage of corporate profits. He reacquired it in 1932 when anti-trust considerations made it desirable for Victor, by then RCA Victor, to sell Southern back to him. The transaction allowed Peer to become wealthy by guiding the catalog into a commanding position in the popular music world. Without abandoning blues and country he embraced the wider world of 1930s popular music, befriending writers like Fats Waller and Hoagy Carmichael. Out of personal loyalty Peer continued to mentor Rodgers and the Carters; otherwise he was finished with hands-on record making. Publishing, licensing, promoting, protecting and administering a growing catalog became his profession and Southern became a major player. As a profitable sideline, he published new arrangements of popular Latin American songs like “Perfidia,” “Brazil,” “Guadalajara” and “Maria Elena,” supplying them with English lyrics and making them international hits.
This book is not without problems. Too many inaccuracies, omissions and questionable assertions reveal the author’s incomplete grasp of the histories of American music and recorded sound. The unfortunate “roots music” cliché in the book’s title and text is an unfocused phrase coined in recent years to label music perceived as old or fashionably quaint, and it’s not appropriate to a serious study. Mr. Mazor sometimes places “RCA Victor” in the 1920s, before David Sarnoff’s Radio Corporation of America acquired the Victor Talking Machine Company. The latter name appeared on Victor labels from 1901 until 1930, when “RCA Victor Company, Inc.” replaced it. He notes OKeh reissues of Odeon material from Europe but overlooks those from the prestigious classical Fonotipia label, offered by OKeh from 1922 to 1926. Lonnie Johnson’s first records were made with his pianist brother James, not James P. Johnson. Bennie Moten’s first records did not include South. Lucille Bogan is unfairly characterized as a “queen” of sexually explicit blues records on the basis of two surviving alcohol-fueled private performances that were never intended for publication. Though the author claims that Mamie Smith was “singing in a Broadway show” when Perry Bradford introduced her to OKeh in 1920, I suspect he’s referring to Made in Harlem, a 1918 revue featuring Smith and the Bradford and Jeanette song and dance team at the Lincoln Theater on West 135th Street.
The old-time Memphis songster Jim Jackson (1876-1933) is oddly dismissed as a “shrewd black vaudevillian” though he was much more than that. His Victor records were decent sellers and his blend of minstrelsy and blues with other early popular styles appealed to retro tastes as skillfully as the Carters did in Virginia. Old Dog Blue, Long Gone and Going ‘Round the Mountain are well known folk songs. I Heard the Voice of a Pork Chop (1914) is a hungry man’s parody of I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say (1846); Bye Bye, Policeman similarly satirizes Bye Bye, Blackbird (1926). I’m Going to Start Me a Graveyard of My Own (1902), This Ain’t No Place For Me (1914) and When I Woke Up This Morning She Was Gone (1912) are songs from an earlier era that also witnessed the emergence of blues. Peer’s disingenuous claim that Jackson was “a little too high-brow” didn’t mention that Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern had recently threatened legal action following Jimmie Rodgers’ record of their 1896 hit Mother Was a Lady, with attribution only to himself. Peer and Southern settled, but they were skating on thin ice with several Jim Jackson songs. All but one of his titles from the August-September sessions weren’t released until 1929 and he recorded only for Vocalion after 1928. Another tune with a complex history was the old railroad ballad Casey Jones. Peer deftly altered the engineer’s name to “Kassie” when Victor released the Furry Lewis version that fall.
Victor’s Memphis sessions, even more than New Orleans and Bristol, are arguably Ralph Peer’s supreme achievement as a record maker. He came six times between February 1927 and November 1930, when the city was ground zero for the era’s most memorable Deep South black music. Besides Jim Jackson, he recorded the Memphis Jug Band, Jim Jackson, Bessie Tucker, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, Ida May Mack, Frank Stokes, Ishmon Bracey, Furry Lewis, Bessie Johnson’s Memphis Sanctified Singers, Elder Richard Bryant, Hattie Hart, Robert Wilkins, Rosie Mae Moore, Tommy Johnson, Blind Mamie Forehand, Booker White, Minnie Wallace, the Bethel Quartet, Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe, Yank Rachel, John Estes, Lonnie McIntorsh and Blind Willie Reynolds. Clean copies of most originals routinely fetch three and four figure sums today but, except for some brief 1930 correspondence about Jim Jackson, Booker White, the Memphis Jug Band and Memphis Minnie, other performers are mentioned only in passing or not at all. Errors and omissions detract from good work and it’s regrettable that the author didn’t invest more time fact checking.
That said, the book nonetheless serves up a wealth of new information and cogent summaries of Ralph Peer’s achievements and considerably enlarges our understanding of him, especially for those who, like me, know little about the world of music publishing. Mr. Mazor’s resources included a private family archive and a lengthy taped interview by family friend Lil Borgeson, made a few months before Peer’s death in January 1960. The book is getting good reviews in the popular press and it’s one most VJM subscribers will want to read.
(1) Dick was unable to complete his study before he died, though there are online ads for a book, “Ralph Peer: the Great Enabler”, credited to him and supposedly published by Yale University in 2009. However, all state that no copies are available. I would welcome any further information.
BOOK: KANSAS CITY LIGHTNING. The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker. By Stanley Crouch. Pub. by Harper Collins Books. Hardbound and softbound, 384pp. illus. from $27.99/ £17.99 on amazon.co.uk. ISBN 978-0062005595.
Stanley Crouch is such a good writer that one reads this story of Charlie Parker wondering how it's going to come out. We all know, of course, but Crouch's work concentrates on Bird's early years, bringing in tales of fascinating characters such as Clark Monroe, the club owner who presided over the birth of be-bop while fencing off stolen jewelry and supplying various pharmaceuticals to the musicians who came to jam there; the sweet, bashful Rebecca Ruffin, his first sweetheart and Jay McShann, who used music as a strategic weapon.
The object of most responsible biographies is to report facts, debunk legends and offer a clear-eyed portrait of its subject. Bunk, says Crouch. And not Johnson. He offers Bird's story in the most legend-building way... a child obsessed with music even before he learned to play...a kind and considerate suitor to Rebecca... a hugely complex and contradictory boy/man and, later, a dragon-slaying soloist - McShann's secret weapon in vanquishing every orchestra that crossed his path. You can't help but be entertained-and enlightened - because he doesn't make stuff up. He makes historical accuracy fun.
As the title suggests, the book is as much about Charlie Parker's surroundings - the wild and woolly Kansas City scene of the 1920s and 30s, the musicians - Bennie Moten, Walter Page and the influences of everything from prize fighter Jack Johnson to the early 19th Century bandleader Frank Johnson. The actual story of Charlie Parker has been told and retold many times - see the movie Bird for the details so we won't recap it here.
This story ends in 1940, with Charlie, having kicked his first habit, seeking to reconcile with Rebecca, who he'd married a few years before. The drugs, the other women, meant nothing. He wanted her. And music. She told him no. No meant no. He went back to an earlier boss, Harlan Leonard, whose pianist an arranger, Tadd Dameron, helped ease him back into the "stuff." This is where the others pick up the story.
BOOK: Duke Ellington as Pianist. a study of styles. By Matthew J Cooper, Ed. Michael J. Budds. Pub. by The College Music Society, Missoula, MT. 127pp softbound. ISBN 978-1-881913-61-0. $45/ £31.95. www.music.org or in Europe www.eurospangroup.com
Duke Ellington probably counts as the most taken-for-granted and under-explored of the earlier generation of jazz greats. Partly this is because the Ellington style and sound was based so profoundly in the structure and personnel of his orchestras, in which the piano played a relatively minor solo role; partly it’s because, for many jazz lovers, Ellington represents the ultimate in ‘love-him-or-hate-him’ musicians; and partly, it’s a result of his own penchant for privacy and playing many of his musical cards close to his chest. I remarked in a review of his early recordings a few VJM editions ago, that the Ellington sound of the 1920s seemed to flower as if from nowhere with his first recordings for Vocalion; much the same can be said of the ‘new’ Ellington style of the early 30s: his Brunswick recordings from 1932 on, marked a complete departure from the ‘jungle’ style into something distinctly more modern, and perhaps less archaic-sounding to today’s listener. But whilst reams have been written over the years about his scores for the orchestra as his musical instrument, relatively little has focused on Ellington as piano stylist. It was often the way that, in earlier years of jazz criticism, he was written off as a somewhat mediocre pianist; his achievements as a soloist were compared rather unfavourably, not only with other pianists of his generation (Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Count Basie spring to mind), but also with his own star soloists. This new book goes a long way to correcting these deficiencies.
It should be said from the start that substantial sections of Matthew Cooper’s analysis depend on the reader’s ability either to read music or to have the relevant recordings at hand to play through. It’s worth the effort. Ellington’s great skill was to make his piano contributions to his recordings (and to his concert performances, as I can attest from personal experience) fit in so perfectly that it’s sometimes only by isolating them that we can understand how individual and special his style was: understated and yet compelling at the same time. As Cooper points out, his playing was both percussive as well as “utilizing a wide range of pitches, textures and dynamics.” It shows how Ellington somehow managed to ignore the whole be-bop revolution and still emerge as a modern jazz pianist who could hold his own with the best of the younger generation, even though his style remained sparse compared to the likes of, say, Bud Powell or Oscar Peterson, whose playing was based on long, complex and flowing phrases.
Cooper provides context for his study of the Ellingtonian style, with a concise but fascinating biographical section, which also includes many pointers to the development of Duke’s powers as both composer and player. It explains how Ellington somehow managed to overcome the problems of losing star musicians by creating new stars: his ability to mould musicians to his orchestral concept always to the fore. The rest of the book is then devoted to an analysis of Ellington’s piano styles across the decades; by the very nature of his recorded output, this analysis is largely based on his orchestral recordings: he made only a handful of solos, and several of these were never issued commercially. That said, Cooper notes how his recording of Black Beauty in 1928 (which, curiously, he wrongly states was recorded for Brunswick!) reveals a man already reaching beyond the norms of the time into unusual harmonies, which he had already used so effectively in his earlier orchestral versions of the tune. As I point out above, if you can’t read music, then you need to play the records to understand the significance of the critique both here and throughout the book.
Ellington’s middle years – the 1930s to the early 1950s – are characterised as those of his ‘typical style’, when he somehow survived into the modern jazz era without ever sounding dated. From his piano accompaniment to Cootie Williams’ solo on Shout ‘Em Aunt Tillie (1930), to his use of tenth-chords on Things Ain’t What They Used To Be (1953), this is a scholarly and a fascinating analysis of how Ellington achieved the tonal depth and texture in his recordings, which made him the supreme orchestrator and composer of the first half-century of jazz. There is an excellent break-down of Duke’s mature style on his duet with Jimmy Blanton – Pitter Panther Patter, which shows how Ellington had re-thought his role in the rhythm section as a result of taking on a bassist of Blanton’s calibre, leading to a major break from his earlier role of providing a basic rhythmic template for the band.
The later years – and their ‘Atypical Style’ – are dealt with in the penultimate chapter, tracing the origins of this later style to Ellington’s 1947 composition The Clothed Woman, and its possible influence on Thelonius Monk – or vice versa! The piece is formally a blues, cleverly disguised (perhaps in much same way the Ellington cleverly disguised Tiger Rag in several earlier compositions); Duke suggested that Monk had been “stealing his stuff”; critics suggested the influence could have been the other way around. What matters is how Ellington was moving into hitherto unexplored territory for him, and doing it as successfully as those who had invented it. Ellington’s style was becoming increasingly dissonant - a reflection, he maintained, of “…the Negro’s life…Dissonance is our way of life in America. We are something apart, yet an integral part.” Cooper goes on to analyse Ellington’s recordings with John Coltrane, Max Roach and Charlie Mingus. The Ellington – Mingus – Roach session Money Jungle is particularly interesting, as it points up the differing expectations of the producer and the musicians. Roach recalls Ellington describing himself as “the poor man’s Bud Powell”; more interestingly, how Mingus regarded Ellington as a “has-been…an old-time pianist, and me as a be-bop drummer” and walked out of the session half-way through. Ellington was apparently unmoved by this prima-donna-ish display, and was quite happy to carry on as a duo. But he was prevailed upon to go out in search of Mingus and told him “you sound wonderful”, at which Mingus broke down in tears and came back to complete the session! The true significance of the recordings lies in the fact that, as the session progressed, Ellington’s musical concept (he composed all the numbers) gradually gives way to a shared concept, in which Ellington rises to the musical challenge presented by the two younger men.
This is essentially a musician’s book: yet anyone who has an interest in Ellington’s music and its development over the years, will find in it a clear and detailed exposition of how he achieved his effect and how integral to his musical concept was his own piano style.
2 CD SET: “HAPPY”: ISHAM JONES – The 1920 Rainbo Orchestra (37 tracks). ARCHEOPHONE ARCH-6008. www.archeophone.com
This is the second time that these 1920 sides by a seminal Chicago Dance Band have been reissued in their entirety; the 37 sides have appeared before in a 240 track Isham Jones compilation issued in 1978 by swiss jazz critic Arnold Bopp, on four open reel Tapes – RJOT 45-1/45-2/45-3/45-4. To be precise, RJOT 45-1 contains four alternative takes (3793/3799/4214/4234) to the Archeophone double-CD (3794/3801/4215/4233). However, the format and the relatively poor circulation of these tapes means that, effectively, this is the first time they have been generally available since the 1920s.
This is music in transition, caught in between the polite social dance music of the 1910s and the emergence of the new world of jazz. The original instrumentation of the Rainbo Orchestra was tb/Cm-ts/vn/p/bj/bb/d, with a second saxophonist (as-ss) added from Oct. 1920 onwards. When, for the December 1920 sessions, a trumpet was added, it was relegated to solely playing rhythmic punctuations, instead of carrying the lead. And Isham Jones, whose nickname was “King Oompah” (as a July 1922 newspaper clipping revealed), was adamant to call the music his band played “American Dance Music”, which for him conveyed more possibilities of expression than the new “Jazz” sounds, then already introduced to a wide public by the ODJB, New Orleans Jazz Band, Louisiana Five, Memphis Five, etc.
And, indeed, Jones’ focus was predominantly on a wide variety of tone colours, counter-melodies, and intelligent arrangements, featuring tuneful melodies. It is interesting to compare these Isham Jones Rainbo Orchestra sides to those of the “Novelty Orchestra” of fellow Chicago saxophonist Paul Biese, who had started recording 7 months before Jones, in November 1919. While Biese’s band heavily featured “comic” effects – crying clarinet, smearing trombone, raspberry trumpet, wailing saxophone, and other caricatures of the new “jazz” music, these effects are conspicuously absent on Jones’ recordings. This allows the band to play in a fresh, open sort of way, in a restrained state of passion. Musical caricature and parody is instead replaced by incredibly virtuosic playing by some of the instrumentalists, and in this regard trombonist Carroll Martin has to be especially mentioned. His firework solos and obbligati with his unbelievably rapid tonguing even nowadays leave the listener in awe and astonishment.
While it is true that these 1920 Isham Jones’ Rainbo Orchestra sides are not stylistically forward-looking or even revolutionary, it is their musical excellence that makes them stand out from their contemporaries. These 1920 sides were issued on Brunswick’s 5000 “Celebrity” Series, and were sold at the time for the comparatively high price of $ 1.00, which reinforces the notion that in Brunswick’s view, this was high-class music for upper-class people.
David Sager’s 23-page liner notes are a model of scholarship, and his song notes are especially enlightening. Many high-quality photos, sheet music pictures, record advertisements from contemporary newspapers and label photos add up to a very informative CD-booklet, complete with a detailed discography and source notes.
While the digital “restoration” sounds very clean, and will please most listeners today, a collector who is used to listening to his 78s in unfiltered sound will detect a quite substantial amount of roll-off applied above 8 kHz with a consequent loss of some “ambience”, and there’s also a lack of warmth on the CD which leads to a slightly harsh sound. This coldness no doubt results due to the use of “Fast Fourier Transformation” footprint noise reduction, and became readily apparent when I listened to some of my early Isham Jones original 78s for comparison.
Timing for the first CD is 57 mins, for the second CD 59 mins. As the Isham Jones Orchestra recorded 14 more sides in 1921, I wonder why these could not have also been included on this set…
Still, for all those who are interested in the greater picture of the evolution of American Dance Band Music, this is a very worthwhile reissue, and gets my recommendation.
BOOK: THE PEKIN. THE RISE AND FALL OF CHICAGO’S FIRST BLACK-OWNED THEATRE. By Thomas Bauman. 264pp Hardbound, illus. $55. Pub. by University of Illinois Press, Urbana Illinois. ISBN 978-0-252-03836-5. www.press.illinois.edu
It is without question that Chicago in the first decade of the 1900s was the powerhouse of African American self-directed theatre, drawing the biggest names of the time from all over the country to work there - Scott Joplin, James Reese Europe, Will Marion Cook, Joe Jordan, Wilbur Sweatman and Dave Peyton, to name but a few of the musical personalities involved.
Foremost among the venues offering black entertainment of all types for predominantly black audiences was the Pekin Theatre and, almost uniquely, its ownership was in the hands of an African American - businessman, gambler and political manipulator ‘Colonel’ Robert T. Motts. For a few brief years, from 1904 into the early ‘teens, Motts’ theatre and others in Chicago under African American direction pioneered black theatrical enterprise above and beyond anywhere else in the USA (and, by extension, the world), ultimately falling victim to a combination of white-controlled theatre trusts, the early deaths of prominent leaders of the profession, local politics and changing tastes. All this and more is covered in detail in Thomas Bauman’s book.
What makes this book particularly important is that it lays down the foundation of black American theatre, in particular the black-owned, black directed theatre, employing full-time stock companies of black singers, dancers, comedians and musicians. Without this foundation the spread of ragtime and jazz would have been seriously curtailed, providing as it did a model and base for other theatrical enterprises in the Windy City and elsewhere in which jazz flourished - the theatres, cabarets and cafes such as the Grand, the Monogram, the Elite, the De Luxe and many others. That model was exported across the big cities of the USA in time, but it is Chicago, and Robert Motts, who can take the credit for the initial impetus.
The author takes the reader from Motts’ beginnings as a saloon operator, with a profitable but illegal sideline in gambling and the ‘policy racket’, to a respected pillar of the community and political fixer, before his untimely death in 1911. His theatrical policy was pretty ‘hands off’, giving directorial control to the likes of black theatre stalwarts J. Ed Green and Jesse Shipp, with musical direction initially in the hands of composer and pianist Joe Jordan.
Ragtime and jazz merely play sideline roles in the book, with passing mentions of the likes of Jordan, Sweatman, Jim Europe, pianist Ed Hardin and W.C. Handy, but it is the scene setting for what was to follow that will interest VJM readers.
I would have liked to seen less politically-correct posturing and analysis - something which all thesis/doctorate-based books suffer from nowadays - but, that aside, it is a good story, well-told.
I can’t see it being on many of VJM’s readers’ ‘must have’ lists, but for anyone who wants to understand the relationship between jazz and the black theatrical world in which its early development was an essential part, then this, along with Doug Seroff and Lynn Abbott’s Ragged But Right is a very useful jumping-off point.
BOOK & CD: The Ivory Men - Black Bob and Blind John 1932 – 1942. A Discography by Christopher Hillman and Daniel Gugolz, With Paolo Fornara. Pub. by Chris Hillman Books, 78 pp, illus, plus CD with 26 titles. www.chbooks.info
This is the seventh book published by the indefatigable Chris Hillman and the second focusing on piano blues. It concentrates on the recorded output of two of the foremost pianists active during the development of urban blues in the 1930s and early 1940s, until the rise of modern, electrified city blues.
This book presents a meticulously-researched discographical listing of all known accompaniments by both pianists and a detailed allocation of hitherto unknown or incorrect listings of pianists from previous discographies. To do this, Chris, for the first time, makes use of the well-known string bass player Daniel Gugolz, who is a fine pianist in his own right and a longtime collector of rare blues records. Adding a second skilled pianist and specialist in the early South Side Piano Styles, Paolo Fornara, this helps makes sense of reworking and searching the recorded output of Black Bob and Blind John Davis. Not only have they tried to identify Black Bob or Davis on the unknown and incorrectly-identified sides, but also attempted to give correct identifications to other musicians when it is neither of them.
There are fine chapters of biographical notes on both performers and a reprint of an article (from Blues Unlimited) by Karl Gert zur Heide about meeting Davis in 1968. There are five pages with photographs and, as usual lots of label illustrations throughout the whole book. Also accompanying the book is a 26-title CD with titles by Big Bill, Lil Johnson, Tampa Red, the Yas Yas Girl and even a test by “Bob and Roy” from 1932, which I heard here for the first time.
For all its wealth of information, this book is not the end of the story - the follow up, which really will fit perfectly with the “The Ivory Men” book, entitled “The Ivory Ladies – and other Melrose Pianists” is scheduled for publication early next year. It will cover the rest of the piano players, active on the Melrose sessions, such as Aletha Dickerson, Myrtle Jenkins, Horace Malcolm or Memphis Slim, responsible for the later Bluebird or Melrose beat, as these kind of blues recordings have been called.
Considering that there have only been a handful of books on Piano Blues published since the 1960s, this and the follow-up book are not only a fine addition to discographical work in the blues field, but also a step forward for a better documentation of Piano Blues in general. Highly recommended.
BOOK: PATHÉ IN BRITAIN VOLUME 3: Actuelle, Perfect, Homochord, Henecy, Levaphone & Dominion Label Discs. By Mike Langridge. Pub. by City of London Phonograph & Gramophone Society Ltd. 53 High Street, Hailsham, East Sussex, BN27 1AR, England. 264pp softbound. ISBN 978-0-900883-82-8. £22 inc UK postage www.clpgs.org.uk
This is the third and final volume of Mike Langridge’s monumental examination of the output of the British branch of the Pathé Freres Company, and is the one most likely to interest the readers of VJM, dealing as it does with the company’s lateral-cut issues which it started marketing in the UK in 1921.
Pathé was by 1921 a venerable name in the recording industry, tracing its history back to the mid-1890s, but its steadfast adherence to vertical-cut discs, manufactured in a bewildering assortment of sizes copied from a single, oversized, master cylinder, meant that, by the 1920s, it had lost its hold on the worldwide market outside its French-speaking heartland. The introduction of the ‘Actuelle’ lateral-cut discs in 1921 was a belated means of clawing back some of the prestige the label had in its heyday, but that to some extent was marred by the fact that most of the big-name talent both in Britain and in the USA had been snapped up by other companies, so it relied on ‘old faithful’ studio singers, second-line performers, ‘studio circuit’ band regulars such as Joseph Samuels, Nathan Glantz and the California Ramblers, buoyed up by raw and untried talent such as Annette Hanshaw, Lee Morse, Willard Robison and Cliff Edwards, all of whom were hoovered up by Columbia when their reputations had blossomed.
The first couple of years’ orchestral issues were standard and rather turgid dance band performances by the likes of Joseph Knecht’s Waldorf-Astoria Orchestra and Ben Selvin’s Orchestra, enlivened by the odd Synco Jazz Band issue but, just 34 issues into the catalogue, up crops Lavinia Turner & Her Jazz Band. Things start to hot up musically in the mid-1920s, when groups such as the California Ramblers, Paul Specht and Joe Candullo consistently turned out ‘hot dance’ performances on the label. Pathé scored several major scoops at that period, particularly signing Annette Hanshaw, Lee Morse and Cliff Edwards (all of whom had records issued on English Actuelle that never saw release in the USA). Of particular importance to jazz collectors are the exclusive issues of The Red Heads, Red Nichols’ pre-Five Pennies studio group, which meant that in 1926 and 1927 Actuelle was issuing the most musically adventurous jazz records available in Britain - a fact not ignored by the Melody Maker in its reviews.
Black jazz was scarce on the label (as it was in the USA) but there are gems to be found - Fletcher Henderson with Louis, Duke Ellington, all four sides by the fabulous Dixie Jassers Washboard Band are the most notable. Unlike most other labels Pathé in the US frequently backed their popular vocalists with small jazz bands, consequently, alongside Annette Hanshaw and Cliff Edwards there is excellent jazz to be found on English Actuelle issues by the likes of Jay C. Flippen, Willard Robison and Betty Morgan.
In March 1928 Pathé introduced a budget label in the UK , Perfect, drawing on Pathé masters from the USA and France. Nearly all are issued under pseudonym and alongside the usual American fare from Sam Lanin, Lou Gold and Harry Reser there are a number of French recordings by the likes of Lud Gluskin and Leo Poll’s Orchestras, but the titles, by and large, are the least interesting of their output.
Unusually, two black bands make an appearance on the rare 12” Actuelle issues - Mitchell’s Jazz Kings and the Syncopated Six - recorded in Paris in 1922/3, but the titles chosen for issue in Britain are again among the least interesting of their output.
As well as full coverage of all known Actuelle and Perfect issues (including Jewish and French language issues), the author covers those Pathé-matrix issues that appeared on Levaphone, the Irish Henecy label, Dominion and Homochord.
The format of artist-release date-catalogue number-matrix-title-composer plus notes of origin is clearly laid-out, and the book is well-printed in A4 format; my only gripes are the lack of historical perspective by way of an introduction (I presume that is covered in Volume 1) and the absence of label scans showing the label types and variations - something the CLPGS is normally very good at.
If you collect the likes of Annette Hanshaw, Lee Morse and Cliff Edwards, this is a priority purchase; the jazz entries are by and large well-documented elsewhere but, that being said, it is good to have all their Actuelle issues all in one place, meticulously noted and cross-referenced. Recommended.
BOOK: The Legendary Lonnie Johnson: Music and Civil Rights. By Dean Alger. 365pp, hardbound, illus. $24.95. Pub. by University of North Texas Press. ISBN-13: 978-1-57441-546-9. http://untpress.unt.edu
According to BB King, Lonnie Johnson was “the most influential guitarist of the 20th century.” Certainly, if the prices fetched by the original 78s of his solo recordings – and of his duets with Eddie Lang – are anything to go by, he is the most highly-regarded and the most expensive! Perhaps more apposite, however, is Rolling Stone Bill Wyman’s opinion: “He was a guitar legend before we knew what they were. You can trace his playing style in a direct line through T-Bone Walker…to Eric Clapton.” In other words, an icon of the same stature as Robert Johnson…though, fortunately for us, with a far greater recorded legacy to judge him by.
Dean Alger’s book is only partly a biography: it sets out also to analyse his music, his influence on other guitarists, his role in the fight for civil rights and in the development of the guitar in blues and popular music across the last century. And it makes the important point that, whilst Johnson R has become a legend because of the fascination of a few rock musicians of a much later generation with his handful of records, Johnson L still remains something of an unknown outside the world of blues and blues-influenced musicians, in spite of his huge influence on his contemporaries.
Lonnie Johnson was born in New Orleans, in 1894. This places him growing up in that city at the crucial point in the development of jazz and perhaps explains why he was so successful in straddling the musical border between blues and jazz in the 1920s – when he not only recorded his most important and influential blues vocals and guitar solos, but also played with the Armstrong Hot Five and the Ellington Orchestra. As the book says, he can probably claim to have invented the guitar solo (although Sylvester Weaver recorded several solos several years earlier, they made little impact outside the ‘race’ record market), and he was already a towering figure in that regard when Charlie Christian burst onto the scene just before World War Two.
Johnson’s first instrument was the violin, which, as Alger tells us, was very highly regarded in black musical circles in New Orleans…and he accompanied his own vocals on that instrument on several of his earliest recordings. It was as a blues singer that he first made his mark, and it was as a blues singer that he had such a profound influence on so many other musicians, not least white rock ‘n’ rollers. Alger quotes the example of Elvis Presley, whose cover of Johnson’s Tomorrow Night played a major role in his rise to stardom. He also cites Bob Dylan, who met Johnson in New York in the 60s and learnt from him a new and less hill-billy style of guitar playing. On a more local note, it was when he played the Royal Festival Hall in 1952, that a young Glaswegian guitarist by the name of Tony Donegan was so impressed by Johnson’s playing that he changed his own name to Lonnie…influenced ever so slightly by the fact that the emcee introduced him by that name - and the real Lonnie as ‘Tony Johnson’!
Johnson was also significant not least because, unlike so many blues artists of his generation, he not only crossed music boundaries, but also lived long enough to make an important contribution to the post-blues, post-war Rhythm and Blues movement. His first recordings were made in St Louis, MO, where he moved via the Mississippi riverboats from New Orleans, perhaps as early as 1919, and where, Alger suggests, he encountered a much more earthy, gritty blues scene that that of his home town. He toured extensively with TOBA, but found enough time to win a series of blues-singing competitions in St Louis that landed him a recording contract with OKeh in 1925. It was during this period with OKeh (1925 – 1932) that he made his landmark solos and duets with Eddie Lang and sat in with the Armstrong and Ellington bands…all three also OKeh artists.
Alger discusses in some detail several of Johnson’s great blues numbers for Okeh: his records sold well and clearly had widespread influence on other artists, perhaps because he travelled widely through the south and recorded in both Memphis, TN and San Antonio, TX as well as Chicago and New York. Alger cites, in particular, one of Johnson’s rare records from the Depression year 1931, Uncle Ned, Don’t Use Your Head, an old Negro folk song, which, features “dazzling, blazing-fingered, virtuoso guitar work”. It was a record, which apparently had a major impact on the young Robert Johnson, who, the book suggests, for all his artistry, could never have matched his namesake for sheer virtuosity on the guitar.
After his OKeh contract ran out, Johnson didn’t record again till 1937 (for Decca); in the meantime, he spent time in Cleveland, OH, where he played with Putney Dandridge and Art Tatum, which he described as “…not easy”! Apparently, one reason he couldn’t get another recording deal, was that he fell out with Lester Melrose, who controlled most of Chicago’s record deals, as he refused to change his style of guitar playing. He made a living playing jazz – with the likes of Baby Dodds – as much from blues work; and it was no doubt this preparedness to experiment in that direction that led to him making his first electric guitar recordings for Bluebird in 1939. He continued, through the 1940s, to “update…fluidly without compromising his musical personality”, and, Alger suggests, made the first Rock ‘n’ Roll record in 1947: Home Last Night. It wasn’t, of course, described as such (the term didn’t come into use until several years later), but that style of playing was launched by Johnson on that record (with ‘Dirty Red’ Nelson). It was a style which influenced a generation of players, from Buddy Holly to Chuck Berry.
There is a great deal more in this vein, about this great blues and jazz artist in this meticulously researched book. It tells us as much about the milieu in which Lonnie Johnson worked, as about the man himself, about his social as well as musical influence. And, above all, it’s extremely readable: even if the blues and blues singers are not your primary interest, there is much you will learn about 20th century black music here, which, I can assure you, you will not have known before!
Highly recommended and, at this price, an absolute bargain.
BOOK: BIG MAMA THORNTON: The Life and Music. By Michael Spörke. Softbound. x + 188 pp. Pub. by McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2014. ISBN 978-0-7864-7759-3. www.mcfarlandbooks.com
Michael Spörke is a political scientist from near Düsseldorf, who discovered Big Mama Thornton through Janis Joplin’s use of her material. He is the author of a biography of Joplin’s band, Big Brother and the Holding Company: Living With The Myth of Janis Joplin. So in writing this book he has been handicapped by a double whammy. On the one hand, his perspective leads him to view blues artists in general and Big Mama Thornton in particular through the prism of their influence on artistic inferiors who became more popular in the wider world. He is obviously aware of this, but not aware enough for instance to get the name of Sonny Boy Williamson right. While Big Mama has nothing but praise for Janis she is allowed to be critical of Elvis Presley’s behaviour (in a 1971 interview).
His other problem is that English is not his native language. Good professional sub-editing could easily have fixed this but unfortunately he chose instead to rely on a member of Joplin’s band. “As his band always gave credit to Big Mama Thornton for writing ‘Ball and Chain’, I find this another great way to honor her.” Comment is probably superfluous. Mind you, it is difficult to conceive of even an uneducated English speaker passing definite articles in front of proper names (“the Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland was from Memphis”). Of course it doesn’t matter but it detracts and distracts. Reference to the mythical newspaper New York Age Defender doesn’t help either. It’s wrong in the Notes too so the reader is left hopelessly lost. There are so many “misspelled” names as to make clear that no one knowledgeable has had any overview of the text whatever.
In fact the author has a third problem as well, a desire to sanitize Thornton’s troubled personality and sometimes ugly behaviour, though he often cannot succeed, so he makes apology in advance by quoting Maureen Mahon. That “men’s discomfort with an assertive black woman” may have played some part in the press she has received seems possible. However the fact that when chosen to appear at John Hammond’s 30th Anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall in 1967, she took against a young guitarist named George Benson and refused to appear with him, was all her own doing. So was pulling a knife on a bellboy who tried to take her bags (presumably doing his job). So was her drink problem. The author’s mealy-mouthed Preface also ducks and dives around her alleged lesbianism. “I was unable to locate any material documenting this rumor.” Well, what a surprise. But does anyone really need to be defended against being thought a lesbian in 2014? Her sometime manager Jimmy Moore expresses regret about the music that could have been made if she had been better equipped to take care of business and this feeling remains despite the author’s efforts.
Lack of expertise about the background to his subject lets the author down in the very first paragraph when he gets the date of Bessie Smith’s death wrong, especially galling as there was no reason to mention it anyway. After dismissing the previous history of blues in one and a half paragraphs and a mistake, the next two chapters (thirty pages) are devoted to Big Mama’s career from her birth on 11 December 1926 to the death of Johnny Ace, the period during which she made her most important contribution.
The chapter covering her subsequent move from Texas to California and the eight years which elapsed before she began to come to the attention of the collector market occupies a mere seven pages, much of which are devoted to background setting, whose relevance can be unkindly judged by one paragraph devoted to Chas McDevitt. I suppose there is merit in acknowledging that skiffle played some part in creating the climate in which the American Folk Blues Festivals became a commercial possibility in Europe, but “all this happened in the beginning without any direct consequences for Big Mama Thornton’s career.” Quite.
Our author gets a solider footing after 1964 when Big Mama’s career began to come to mainstream attention, with appearances at Monterey and a knock-on concert in Santa Monica with Chuck Berry. “Then the big chance came…with a call from Germany.” The history of the AFBF idea which follows is relevant, but no time is lost in introducing us to the Rolling Stones and the opinions of one Chris Huston of The Undertakers. Reading that the festival appeared in the London suburb of Croyton [sic] fails to surprise but it does still annoy.
‘Back Home’, after a discourse on the San Francisco psychedelic scene, applies itself to the Arhoolie sessions and Thornton’s new career on the club scene. Spörke asserts that her Carolyn/Sotoplay session was made after her return from Europe whereas discographers assign it to 1963. In general there is a beneficial increase in detail. And then on page 69 Janis Joplin enters the story and in December 1966 an appearance at Fillmore on the same bill as the Grateful Dead. It is claimed that Duke Ellington made overtures to her at this time, which is hard to believe, and Thornton’s self-awareness in refusing to talk to him might be applauded.
Increasingly dates and detail which should be tabulated at the end intrude into the text and indeed many of them prove to be repeated (whole paragraphs of them) in the ‘Timeline’ which follows the main text. The lists of forgotten teenage wunderkinder whose company she was keeping at this time (1967-9) do serve to indicate just how far blues artists have had to prostitute themselves to retain an audience. There is more interesting material as well on such gigs as the 1969 Newport Folk Festival and Ann Arbor Blues Festival, and he gives a personnel for the Mercury Stronger Than Dirt album, apparently not known to discographers. It explains much. This extended gig list mixed with commentary from contemporary newspapers and musicians she worked with continues through the coverage of the rest of her life. Whether you are interested in the opinions of rock musicians on such matters is your call. There is some good coverage of her work with George ‘Harmonica’ Smith, one of the more rewarding associations of her later career. Bill Sheffield, not perhaps fairly to be described as a rock musician, remarks, ‘It didn’t matter how good the band was. She was good enough for all of us,” which is at least candid! I am not convinced that the author has entirely understood the relationship between Big Mama’s continual on-stage barracking of her accompanying bands and her off-stage insistence to management that they were just fine! The very detailed account of her dealings with the Robert Ross Blues Band at a 1980 gig at Tramps in New York can be taken any way you want, but it must have been hell for the musicians. An interesting comment on this period is that the live Vanguard album from the 1971 prison gigs has been doctored to make the audiences sound more enthusiastic!
The book is completed by three Appendices, the Timeline, a Selected Discography, and a list of filmed appearances. There is a smattering of good illustrations, one of the most interesting being an original schedule for the 1972 American Folk Blues Festival.
Really recommendable only to those with a detailed interest in Big Mama’s post-1964 career, for which it serves as an invaluable if not always very readable reference source.
BOOK: LOUIS ARMSTRONG - MASTER OF MODERNISM. By Thomas Brothers. Hardbound, 608pp, illus. $39.95, £25 on amazon.co.uk Pub. by W.W. Norton & Co., 2014. ISBN 978-0-393-06582-4. books.wwnorton.com
Louis Armstrong was beyond doubt the most influential jazz musician of the pre-bop era, both as a trumpeter and singer, and has over the years been the subject of scores of biographies and critical essays, plus his own autobiographies. Thomas Brothers’ biography of the formative years of Louis Armstrong’s life, Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans of 2006 was critically acclaimed as the best book to be written on the subject. This, his follow-up, has also been well-received in some quarters, but criticised in others, not least for his fast and loose playing of the ‘race card’ as and when it suits his purposes. He frequently hits out at Louis’ white disciples and fans in the 1920s as little more than ill-equipped, talentless idea thieves, in doing so making free and frequent use of the Chicago Defender’s music critic and bandleader Dave Peyton’s ill-judged phrase about Louis “slaying those ofay demons.” He considers West End Blues as Armstrong’s ultimate ofay demon slayer; Louis no doubt took a different view, for his generosity and support given to white trumpeters such as Nat Gonella was both heartfelt and well-documented. As for his views on Bix Beiderbecke, I’ll leave it to the author himself to summarise:- “Severe alcoholism and shadowy sexual deviance, including pederasty and masochism, indicate a deeply troubled mind that he tried to deal with through alcohol and an overwhelming dedication to music.” Harsh words indeed...
Brothers’ research, much of it new to me, especially the Lil Armstrong scrapbooks and small-circulation South Side Chicago newspapers and magazines, help bring to life and give insight into the effervescent black cultural millieu of South Side Chicago’s ‘black and tans’, and his analyses of Louis’ recordings of the period are, on the face of it, on a par with those of Gunther Schuller, but his race agenda bears down on so much of his prose that it becomes tiresome to read at times. Even fellow African American musicians are not spared the author’s lash - Fletcher Henderson is berated for his bourgeois ‘Talented Tenth’ pretensions and for keeping Louis under wraps, apart from the odd 8 or 16-bar explosion of creativity. Like it or not though, that is exactly what Henderson hired Louis for - to add spice and fire to his and Don Redman’s already advanced arrangements (and with Louis’ innate harmonic and rhythmic sense as an impetus these arrangements would advance even further), not to play 32 choruses of Tiger Rag.
Despite Brother’s obvious love and knowledge of Louis’ music, he is not above perpetrating the odd gaff - occasionally of monumental proportions; he uses Henderson’s Harmony recording of Alone At Last and its extended cornet solo as a stick to beat Joe Smith for being safe, conformist, and merely a melody paraphraser - the stylistic opposite of Louis, blissfully unaware that the solo in question is played by none other than - Louis Armstrong! The fact the he cannot recognise Armstrong’s unmistakable phrasing and vibrato (especially in the final 8 bars) casts grave doubt on the validity of his other musical analyses, at least for this reviewer.
In the same vein he cites Louis’ quotation from Rhapsody in Blue in the solo after the vocal on Ain’t Misbehavin’ as “Armstrong’s first documented musical quotation.” Absolute rubbish - Louis’ knowledge of a broad spectrum of popular and classical music (nothing unusual about that in 1920 - our parents and grandparents had a much broader musical knowledge than our generation) permeates many of his solos at this date - most notably his direct quote from Rigoletto on Johnny Dodds’ New Orleans Stomp. Likewise, his admiration of classically-trained trumpeters such as B.A. Rolfe and Vic d’Ippolito (who sat opposite him in the Sam Lanin band at the Roseland) is well-documented, not only from his own writings and interviews, but is evidenced in his personal record collection which contains early classical cornet solo recordings by Herbert L. Clarke and Bohumir Kryl.
Louis’ vocal style is closely analysed and its influence discussed at length, as is his reliance of marijuana, which gets a whole chapter devoted to the subject.
Louis’ complex personal life, especially his relationship with his mother, is examined in detail, as is his ofttimes difficult relationship with Lil Hardin - the philandering was not one-sided, it seems. Lil does get credit for pushing Louis, both in advancing his chosen career (often contending with Louis’ reluctance to ‘rock the boat’), and in improving his knowledge of musical theory, but one still gets the feeling that Lil’s role as the driving force in the relationship is underplayed.
One of the problems with Brothers’ book is repetition - rather than make a point once he frequently beats the reader about the head to ensure that his message has been received; take as a case in point the fact that Cornet Chop Suey was not ‘written to order’ for the OKeh Hot Five session, but actually was a completely scored cornet solo conceived by Louis and taken down in musical notation by Lil in January 1924. I lost count how many times this fact crops up throughout the book, but it must rank in the dozens.
Brothers’ playing of the race card occasionally takes him to places he’d rather not be - most notably in contextualising the minstrelsy/plantation/African savage stereotypes that Louis freely immersed himself into when he crossed the boundary into the white mainstream of American entertainment of the day. Cultural stereotypes had long been an important part of the entertainment world - and to an extent still are - have you seen Borat? However, in 1920s America they were all-pervading, so like it or not, Louis had to be part of it if he wanted to expand his audience. Of course, later generations of jazz musicians mocked Louis for his ‘Uncle Tom’ ways, but at that time it was non-negotiable. One only has to look to Paris and Josephine Baker to see the same scenario being played out - the difference being that La Baker ditched the banana skirt as soon as she could and earned Louis’ ire when she confronted barefaced racism on her return to New York in 1951.
The author obviously loves his subject, that there is no doubt, and his in-depth examination of the cross-fertilisation of ideas between musicians, singers, dancers and comedians in the creative melting pot of 1920s Chicago cabarets will be eye-opening to most readers, but does he get under Louis’ skin to see what made him tick? No more than any other biographer would be the honest answer. Still this is an important, if flawed, book - it would have been more to the author’s credit had Louis’ amazing achievements - both as a musician and vocalist - been documented and celebrated without the politically correct posturing and creative use of quotations to suit his own ends.
4 CD SET: MILES DAVIS QUINTET Featuring John Coltrane. All Of You. Last Tour 1960. Acrobat ACQCD7076. Widely available on Amazon etc.
There have been a number of stellar partnerships in jazz: Bix and Tram, Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, Dizzy & Bird and, of course, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. The latter resulted in one of the greatest jazz albums ever; Kind of Blue.
A few months following the release of this album, Miles and Coltrane with Wynton Kelly, Paul Chamber and Jimmy Cobb embarked on an extensive European tour that was to be Coltrane’s (almost) final moment with the trumpeter.
The spring, 1960 tour covered 20 cities in nine countries and was recorded in various locations – either off the radio on from the audience—which had been previously available in bits and pieces. This collection assembles all of the tour recordings in one package which represents a pivot in jazz history – Coltrane transitioning into the playing that marked his latter years.
Coltrane told interviewers that he’d quit Miles after this tour because he’d moved on musically. (That the two did not get along was certainly another factor). Based on his commercial recordings, it was difficult to see how different his playing had evolved away from Davis’ concepts but this collection shows how radical he’d become in such a short time.
Indeed, the collection contains seven versions of So What, a title from Kind of Blue that since has become a jazz standard. Davis keeps to his style on the 1959 album, but Coltrane’s solos are radically (there’s that word again) different – his dissonant runs, evolving into the “sheets of sound” that would mark his playing a few years after this, are a complete departure from the slow, brooding solo on the album.
The collection also includes several versions of On Green Dolphin Street, which Davis recorded in the mid-50s but kept in his repertoire. The song is a pop standard, but Coltrane doesn’t let up – pushing and pushing farther. Same on ‘Round Midnight, and the title cut, All of You. Of the 24 tracks, there are only eight different songs, but the variations between them in the playing make for fascinating comparisons.
According to the extensive liner notes by Simon Spillett, a tenor saxophonist, Coltrane’s adventures were roundly criticized (one reviewer called his playing “terrifying”) but he remained unapologetic, saying that he only begun his evolution.
After the tour, Coltrane formed his own group and began a series of recordings for Atlantic (Giant Steps) but returned to Davis briefly to work on the magnificent Someday My Prince Will Come.
As might be expected from recordings from my sources, the sound quality varies. A few suffer from lack of balance, but the audio engineers have done an excellent job in restoring the sound quality – much improved from the pervious reissues of this material.
These recordings chronicle an important moment in modern jazz history and are essential for that reason as well as the music.
BOOK: THE BLACK MUSICIAN AND THE WHITE CITY: Race and Music in Chicago, 1900-1967. By Amy Absher. Hardbound. xi + 202 pp. Pub. by University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2014. ISBN 978-0-472-02998-3. www.press.umich.edu
Amy Absher teaches history and writing at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. In her Introduction she makes a case for regarding Chicago as central to African American life in the period under discussion. “The history of Black musicians in Chicago is more than a case study.” She seeks to “examine the role of the musician in the history of migration, the musician experience in the segregated urban environment, and the building of a musician-led labor movement.” Her work “focuses on the musician as historical actor” and she recognizes that their responses to the situations they found themselves in are unlikely to be consistent with one political theory or another, but are likely to vary over time. “Daily they had to make choices ranging from open resistance, to self-sufficiency, to negotiation.” As she points out, the complexities of segregation required a complex system of resistance.
What she has written is more of a contribution to the sociology of music than to the history of music but not necessarily any the worse for that. The references show that she has used good sources for her musical context but she has not always quite understood them. For example she quotes Louis Armstrong from Louis Armstrong In His Own Words by Thomas Brothers on the subject of sitting in with the Dukes of Dixieland in Chicago and New York without apparently realizing that Louis has skipped a few decades from talking about the New Orleans Rhythm Kings a few paragraphs before. This kind of thing does not happen often but readers who know about the musical history will be brought up with a bump. I do not think it is true that all AFM conventions were held in Southern cities either, though I don’t doubt the reality of the problems caused when they were. In general it is hard to escape the feeling that she started with her thesis and then searched widely for evidence to back it up, but this is partly because she covers too many bases ever to leave a convincing sense of in-depth understanding.
She divides her material into five chapters, which cover 1900s-1930s (though with very little indeed about the thirties), 1940s, 1948-1953, 1954-1963, and 1963-1967. The book is less unbalanced than this implies because she manages to condense into the first chapter a very effective overview of the political, legal and moral forces interacting on the Chicago music scene from the opening of the Pekin Theater in 1904 to the late 1920s, dealing in turn with the three forces that “shaped the musicians’ reality” in these decades: the 1912 vice purge, what she calls the social myth conflating vice and race which shaped the entertainment functions of the South Side, and the response of African American community leaders, who wanted to protect their community from infiltration by white-owned rackets but could not do so.
The 1940s chapter uses Muddy Waters as an initial case study of migration from the South, and also deals with the maintenance of a segregated union at the behest both of Caesar Petrillo and white Local 10 and of black leaders like the music teacher Walter Dyett, who believed that only black musicians would protect the rights of other black musicians. In passing here she contrasts the attitudes of European American musicians in a 1949 study with views expressed by African American musicians. It appears that the difference in life expectancy between the two groups was twelve years. She quotes a number of blues lyrics which posit the remembered South as a “fallback” position, juxtaposed with “the reality of grueling industrial labor in the north,” all somewhat at variance with the dream picture of Northern life promoted by the African American middle class and its institutions. However this is an instance where I suspect strongly that lyrics could as easily have been found to support other interpretations. Consideration is also given to the day jobs favoured by musicians.
The third chapter starts by pointing out that Muddy Waters was a sharecropper when he migrated to Chicago in 1943, but within twenty years ‘sharecropper’ was no longer a statistical occupational category. The railroad he had travelled on was also out of service. As early as 1952 Howlin’ Wolf drove to Chicago from Memphis, “like a gentleman”, he said. The contrast in their subsequent experiences is equally pertinent. The discussion of the effects of the shift to independent record labels recording African American music will be familiar to many from the author’s sources, though I was briefly mystified by the role of ‘Change Records’, until I realized Chance was meant. Wonder where that came from? A later reference to ‘Dolphine’s of Hollywood’ makes it all too clear that like a growing number of contemporary books this has not been professionally sub-edited and readers are left to make their own corrections from prior knowledge!
A new thought to me, referenced to a work published in 2002 and which immediately rings true, is that the rise of the disc jockey spreading music across ethnic boundaries depended on television taking over family space from radio, so that radio listening was no longer under parental control. The 1954-63 chapter carries forward the story of how radio, juke-boxes, and DJs spread African American music beyond its former social boundaries, and the panic this caused not only among Southern segregationists but in the pages of Variety and the managements of the major labels. These forces conspired to generate the payola scandals, an actual reduction in the number of radio stations featuring “Negro programing”, and an increasing danger for African American performers touring the South as a result of growing attention from white audiences, all familiar material to most enthusiasts. The 1954 interview in which Wynonie Harris reported hiding in the men’s washroom to avoid being seen interacting with white female fans dramatizes the problems the artists faced.
The final chapter is concerned with the struggle for and against merging AFM Locals 10 and 208. Jazz musicians were found on both sides, with drummer Red Saunders leading the dissidents who took advantage of changes in civil rights law to join the white local. Trumpeter Bob Shoffner’s view was that “Local 10 is not interested in Negro members. They are interested in Negro assets.” This view is amply supported by extensive quotation from AFM filing. The merged Local did indeed dispose of Local 208’s assets, including not only what had been the social centres for musicians but the low-cost housing provided for musicians. Several of the original proponents of merger are quoted expressing disenchantment with its consequences.
It seems from the ‘Coda’ that the eventual hiring of an African American musician as a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (in 2002) is regarded as some kind of closure. This hidden agenda presumably explains the peculiar insertion at the end of the 40s chapter of the 1959 complaints of composer Edward Bland about the way African Americans were limited by their own culture. “The jazz body must die because the restraints on the Negro must die.” If this is anything more than “trade-unionism” by would-be classical musicians, the case is not made.
The book is enhanced by a number of maps showing statistical information about the African American population of Chicago and the locations not only of entertainment venues but also the distribution of African American community institutions such as schools and churches. Its perspective on the context in which African American musicians have practiced their trade is an interesting one, although different conclusions could be drawn from some of the data presented, which of course is a merit.
The author observes that records made during the 20s would eventually be touted as “remaking American music”, but “it should be remembered that the performers were members of a segregated union, played in illegal clubs, and recorded for a racist music industry that labelled their art ‘race music’.” Yes, it should, and especially at a time when the retrospective abolition of segregation has become almost an industry amongst some American jazz writers. If Amy Absher has succeeded in providing an antidote to that campaign and a road map for the research directions of the students at whom this is presumably primarily aimed, her efforts will have been worthwhile.
CD: IAN WHITCOMB: “The Golden Age Of Tin Pan Alley” Rivermont BSW-3137 (2 CDs, 41 tracks total.) www.rivermontrecords.com
Ian Whitcomb may well be familiar primarily to those of us who came of age in the mid-60s by virtue of a hit record in the era of the British Invasion, going by the name of You Turn Me On. However, his personal predilection even at that time was not just for the pop music of that time, but for a broad spectrum of popular music covering the whole twentieth century. This developed, in the following five decades, into a career playing, recording, performing, and broadcasting a repertoire of “greatest hits” from 1901 to seemingly yesterday. These two CDs feature both specially-recorded material and performances from earlier periods as far back as 1972, some using titles instantly recognizable as 1920s jazz standards, such as The Charleston and If I Could Be With You, as well as some like Who’s Sorry Now? which enjoyed two periods of huge popularity, decades apart, at the hands of both the OM5 and Connie Francis. Other titles may well ring a bell with you, even though they aren’t part of what most of us regard as the jazz repertoire, at all. I had a mother who remembered every tune she had ever heard as a teenager in the twenties, and from every decade thereafter; so some of the ditties Ian (and on occasion his wife, Regina) perform, take me back half a century, to an a capella performance heard over the sound of a Hoover, or accompanied by the clatter and slosh of a sink full of dishes.
For the most part, however, these are tunes that emerged from popular songwriters between 1900 and 1930, in the form of parlour tunes, show tunes, topical ditties, such as When Alexander Takes His Ragtime Band To France, or simply the pop songs and ballads every courting couple has regarded as “our song,” whatever the era. The accompaniments are amazingly varied, from large combo to solo uke (Whitcomb himself is a talented multi-instrumentalist) so the mood is one of constant change.
Given that many if not most of the melodies themselves will be new to most ears, there are discoveries to be made here aplenty. Glenn Robinson’s ample liner notes detail the context and chronology of each title, in many cases with an illustration of the original sheet music cover.
An album like this is always a “find” for me, because it opens a window with a view extending out into that period we all love dearly, going well beyond the music we are all familiar with. Thanks to Ian himself and his huge repertoire, and the level of enterprise shown by Bryan Wright of Rivermont, there is a musical buffet here worthy of the sampling. Try it all.