VJM's Review pages have been a consistent and popular feature of the 'hard copy' magazine for many years - its insightful and authoritative reviews by a wide cross-section of knowledgeable specialists cover the broadest spectrum of jazz and blues books, CDs, videos, periodicals and much more. We feel that we should share these reviews with our Web visitors and welcome submissions to this section. To submit material for review see our Contact page for contact details.
BOOK: IVORY LADIES: Aletha and Myrtle And Other Melrose Pianists, 1932-1942, A Discography. By Christopher Hillman and Daniel Gugolz with Paolo Fornara. Softbound. v + 78 pp, illus. £20. Pub. by Chris Hillman Books, Tavistock, Devon, 2015. www.chbooks.info
Chris Hillman has been supervising and publishing this series of booklets re-listing mostly Chicago sessions of the 1920s and ‘30s, many of them crossing the boundaries between blues and jazz, for a good many years now. The methodology is essentially based on that used for his ‘Paramount Serenaders’ series in Storyville magazine. A group of informed listeners compares performances made around the same time and place and attempts to relate what they hear to the sometimes depressingly few definite facts about the participants that have survived the passage of time.
This volume is specifically a companion to 2014’s Ivory Men, which included a cogent essay on the historical and current use of aural identifications in discography. It is an inescapable paradox, and I am sure Chris Hillman and his team have no intention to ignore it, that, on the face of it, it was precisely the same methods now being used to reach a closer approximation to the truth which were used to create the mess now being swept away. What has changed of course is the wider availability of the material, which first developed with tape recorders. It is too easy to forget that the earliest discographers could work aurally only with those records that they or their friends happened to own. Otherwise they depended on reports and identifications from people of unknown and unknowable listening experience and sensitivity.
Not that this problem is entirely eliminated. The second session listed, Bumble Bee Slim’s Vocalion 1691 of 17 March 1932, has the rather sad footnote, “We have yet to hear this and so has Helge Thygesen who reports that no trace of it has turned up during his extensive discographical research into the Vocalion label. A copy is in the possession of Michel Chaigne who believed that the personnel above is incorrect.” My own policy as a discographer has for some years been, “If they won’t let you hear it, ignore their opinions” (this is the public version). An explanation of my stance can be found a few pages further on where Blues & Gospel Records is justifiably castigated for naming Albert Ammons for Slim’s session of 27 January 1937, though it is not in fact true that this is done “without qualification”. The qualification “prob.” is clear enough on my copy. It is nonetheless a result of succumbing to a determined campaign to have his speculations set forth as facts from someone I then thought to be informed and knowledgeable.
While this work is focussed on the recordings, certain or otherwise, of Aletha Dickerson and Myrtle Jenkins, it also covers Joshua Altheimer, Memphis Slim, Horace Malcolm, and Big Maceo, making the title something of a misnomer. These appear as a single sequence, which derives no doubt from the relationship between sessions being central to the methodology. In this case the main discography is followed by a second sequence covering the Melrose-related work of some other pianists, including Roosevelt Sykes and Walter Davis.
It does need to be stressed that the value of this work and its predecessors is not confined to those who find themselves agreeing with the conclusions. No attempt is ever made to present deduction as certainty. The process is left transparent and a very useful roadmap is thereby generated for further research (very literally in this instance in my own case since I was inspired to establish that Lillie Mae Kirkman was the wife of Reavely Randall and thus to identify the Randall and Randall who recorded immediately before Lillie Mae’s 15 June 1939 session). The suggestion that Barrelhouse Annie might be Mary Mack is certainly thought-provoking.
The discography is preceded by a brief biographical section. Plenty of photos of the participants are scattered through the book, though none have been found of Aletha or Myrtle it seems, and many labels are illustrated also. Two pages of additions and corrections to previous volumes are provided at the end, and a 23-track CD, with generally excellent sound, enables the purchaser to follow some of the comparisons without effort. I wish the author could be persuaded to discontinue his habit of listing LP and CD issues of material not on 78 only when he approves of them, if that is the selection process. I seriously doubt that he himself has access to tests of everything that he declines to specify issue numbers for and his readers certainly do not. They will be using the Document issues and this should be acknowledged in the usual discographical manner, especially when they have played such a large part in reducing the monopoly of knowledge formerly held by the few.
Ultimately however these reservations are insignificant. This is a careful survey worthy of the attention of anyone with an interest in this area of African American music, with the added bonus that giving a bit of prominence to the roles of the two leading ladies was somewhat overdue.
BOOK: Bobby Hackett: His Life in Music. By George Hulme & Bert Whyatt. 635pp Hardbound and Softbound. Pub. by Hardinge Simpole / Zeticula Ltd. ISBN 978-1-84382-222-3. £60 Hardbound, £35 Softbound. Available on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk
This book came to me with a health warning: that the publisher had made alterations to the text without the authors’ agreement, and had not allowed them to proof-read the final text. This, I was told, had led to several errors of fact and grammar. As I have remarked before (for example in my review of Jazz Jews), the standard of proof-reading and editorial is not what it was…and silly errors are often the result. However, I have read many that are much worse than the present volume! I spotted a few grammatical goofs; the factual ones were less apparent.
And so to Bobby Hackett. I’ve always thought of him as something of a chameleon amongst jazz brass players: he was almost unique in the 1930s in playing cornet rather than trumpet: he only switched to the latter in the mid-40s, but returned to the cornet around ten years later. His playing was often compared to that of Bix (and he played the cornet part in the radio adaptation of Young Man With a Horn), though he himself always insisted Louis was his idol. He was also a man who could mix the fieriest of Dixieland ensemble playing, with extraordinarily lyrical solo work. Some of his solos on his 1930s Vocalion sessions - Embraceable You is a classic example - are the musical equivalent of Greek statues: beautiful flowing lines, perfection of structure and execution. And yet, as the authors point out, when faced with having to play material he didn’t particularly like, he could equally turn from perfection to mediocrity. That said, he was a tireless seeker after the best: music, he said, “should be an uplifting and happy experience for both the listener and the performer.” His watchwords: “practice, practice and practice.” This outlook seems to have contributed to his relatively early death – at the age of 61 in 1976. He played every opportunity he got, often spending hours at concerts just to feature on two or three numbers. He collapsed from a heart attack three days after being discharged from treatment in hospital (for diabetes and heart problems), from which he went straight back to playing in a club the same evening!
This book is an excellent reference work on a jazzman, whose name is familiar enough, but whose biographical details in other reference books are often sparse or restricted to a list of gigs and selected recordings. It’s divided into two main parts: his life and his recordings. The first part is further sub-divided into sections on his instrument, his style, appreciations from those who knew and worked with him, and six decades of biographical material, all of which are usefully number-coded for easy cross referencing.
Hackett was born into great poverty in Providence, RI, and his youthful musical gigs – as a violinist, banjo and ukulele player – provided some much-needed extra family income. His first cornet cost his brother $5; but how he learned to play it, and with whom, seems something of a mystery: he was still playing cornet “only occasionally” in 1932. Yet, by 1936, he was leading a band on cornet in Boston, MA, and sat in with members of the Benny Goodman orchestra in the same city that year. A Metronome report of the time noted that Hackett’s style was “remarkably like Bix’s – easy natural and free from high notes.” He was in New York the following year, which was when his career really began to take off. But it wasn’t all plain sailing and his end-of-year stint with Joe Marsala at the Hickory House saw him playing guitar (replacing Eddie Condon!) and just the occasional cornet solo – again. Then, a complete reversal of fortunes had him opening the new Nick’s on cornet with a band that included Pee Wee Russell, George Brunis and…Eddie Condon.
These early years’ flip-flops reflect much of his career, in a way. For all the time he spent on radio broadcasts like Saturday Night Swing Club, or recording with and playing in Dixieland-style groups, some good some indifferent, some really rather poor – he spent just as much in commercial ventures, including a big band that folded after a few weeks, and stints in the sweet band of Horace Heidt, an engagement that ended, perhaps predictably, in tears after only a few months; with Glenn Miller, with whom he played guitar as well as cornet (or trumpet?) and appeared in the film Orchestra Wives”; and with the Casa Loma Orchestra. He recorded with Tony Bennett, with Jackie Gleason and a string orchestra, playing romantic ballads; and toured with Benny Goodman. He mixed Town Hall concerts with work as a staff musician for first NBC, then ABC, on contracts, which gave him plenty of time for freelance work. Amazingly, in addition to the musicians one would expect him to be playing with, he appeared in 1950 at Birdland with Charlie Parker and Gene Ammons; he also played with Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.
The fact that Hackett, who could produce some of the most elegant, composed solos of his generation, was self-taught, caused him some real problems. He had denture trouble and at one point had to find a tutor, who showed him how to develop a correct embouchure, after he’d played out his lower lip in the 1940s. And he had difficulties working with men like Wild Bill Davison, because he was a ‘weak-breather’ and couldn’t hold his own with the ‘big-lung’ crowd. He also played lots of ‘clinkers’ and his performances could be very variable. Against that, should be set his abilities as a leader and promoter: he’s credited, for example, with persuading Louis Armstrong’s manager to let the maestro briefly abandon his big band for a small-group concert, which led to the formation of the All-Stars and a whole new musical direction for Armstrong.
The second part of this book is an exhaustive discography, which details every recording session, commercial and private, that the authors have been able to trace, as well as the many broadcasts, which were either legally or illegally recorded. His recording career began as a staff musician in the Decca house band (accompanying artists such as Dick Robertson) and ended with an appearance on the Lawrence Welk Show in Los Angeles. Hackett was something of an audiophile and once tape recorders were available, took one along to many of his gigs. He recorded hundreds of tapes, some of which he issued on disc, though many of them have been lost, or at least haven’t yet re-surfaced. Those that have are listed, but to some extent, this is a work still in progress. Moreover, as the authors make clear, Hackett’s studio work inevitably means that he took part in hundreds of broadcasts as a member of the studio orchestra, though his presence can’t be confirmed. The discographical entries are listed in date order format (e.g. 380114 = January 14th, 1938) for easy referencing, with main and subsidiary issues given…though, again, the authors point out that there have been so many re-issues of copyright-expired material, that they can’t hope to have traced them all.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is a short section devoted to other musicians’ thoughts about Bobby Hackett. Alec Wilder describes him as “poet and essayist…tender and witty”; Dick Cary: “the most exciting fact…was that his solos were actually compositions…”; Lache Shaw describes his tone “as if a series of glorious church bells were being struck by a sensitive mallet.” Hackett himself said of music in general: “Real greatness is in simplicity”. That’s as good an epitaph as any jazzman might expect.
VINYL LP: LEADBELLY LOST RADIO BROADCAST, WNYC, 1948. OJL 8055. $25.00. www.originjazz.com
For the final decade of his life, Leadbelly was perhaps the most popular folk musician in the USA, appearing on radio, in “bohemian” clubs and, of course, recording hundreds of songs for the Library of Congress and commercial record labels.
Just in case a few readers have flown in from another galaxy, Leadbelly was born Huddie Leadbetter in Mooringsport Louisiana about 1888, left home about 15 years old and rambled throughout the South working odd jobs, playing 12-string guitar and accordion and spending stretches in prison. According to legend, he was pardoned from Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison after the governor heard him sing what would be his theme song, Irene, though the intercession of folklorist John Lomax.
That was in 1933. After then, Leadbelly recorded hundreds of songs – topical, work chants, children’s tunes, dance pieces and blues. He recorded from ARC, Victor and Musicraft before the war and for a variety of companies after 1945, until his death in 1949.
This set consists of two recently-discovered 15 minute segments of a radio show called Folklore which ran over radio station WNYC in the summer of 1948. The announced introduces Leadbelly “as the greatest living folksinger,” whereupon the singer begins his theme, Irene, a waltz he’d learned from his uncle as a boy.
The material in these two broadcasts – seven songs on 10 tracks of this 10” vinyl- is familiar. Backwater Blues, first recorded by Bessie Smith 20 years earlier, was one he had recently cut for Capitol Records. House of the Rising Sun, which became a major hit by Eric Burdon in the 1970s, is here twice. On the first broadcast, Leadbelly sings transforms the dirge-like prostitute’s lament into a dance tempo while on the second, he begins waltz time before reverting to his earlier style.
If It Wasn’t for Dicky is a tune that Leadbelly had not recorded much, if at all, outside this set. Being Irish in origin, it is pure Leadbelly with his 12-string accompaniment while Careless Love and Leavin’ Blues are close to his other recorded versions. Hollywood and Vine, with its 8-to-the-bar feel, reflected a favorite theme of his—putting to song his impressions of a city, having paid tribute to New York, Washington DC and Shreveport in similar fashion.
Today, as country blues singers are being nominated for sainthood (practically, anyway) – Patton, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon, McTell - ol’ Leadbelly is comparatively neglected. Perhaps that is because Leadbelly was a “song sponge” who absorbed almost every kind of music and transformed it into an original statement. And perhaps, because he recorded so much that even the most original statements suffer from over familiarity.
For those familiar with the Library of Congress sessions, this relatively brief collection will be a sound revelation. Recorded under excellent conditions, they are not issue-free (being from acetates) but have none of the speed problems, ambient noise and grainy, shallow fidelity of the LOC (or even the Disc) sessions. Nor are they marred by “improvements” like the zither player on the Capitol sessions.
The liner notes by Kip Lornell and Cary Ginell are excellent, saying as much in two pages as some who consume a dozen, while still leaving space for a fascinating recollection by OJL founder Pete Whelan who, as a teenager, saw Leadbelly perform at the Rudi Blesh “This is Jazz” radio show.
With vinyl making a comeback, this album is an excellent start to getting back in the game. It’s great listening which, we hope, will get Leadbelly back into the discussions of blues giants.
CD: THE BIG BROADCAST VOLUME 10. Rivermont BSW-1163. See advert in this issue for ordering details. www.rivermontrecords.com
It ain’t Christmas; and equally valid, it ain’t Eid-al-Fitr or Hanukkah either; but it’s celebration time anyway, because here comes yet another Big Broadcast CD from Rich Conaty and Rivermont. Irrational as it may be to think in these terms at my age, opening the Rivermont package and stripping the cellophane off the CD triggers the thought each time, that an unknown uncle remembered me in his will.
Rich always opens the programme with something unusual; this time, of all things, it’s a bloody waltz. The Scranton Sirens deliver Three O’Clock In The Morning, and boy, is it gorgeous!
Gorgeous? A waltz? Now I must have really got you thinking I’m going cuckoo; but just as a Ruby Keeler movie makes you want to have been looking into those eyes in 1933, this tune, with harmonized saxes imitating violins in a call-and-answer chorus, makes you want to have been in Jay Gatsby’s imaginary garden on Long Island in 1922, listening to this band at one of his parties. The flip of this record, Fire, was on BB6; not only is the coupling beautiful and restrained, but it’s also a debut for the Dorsey brothers and Itzy Riskin, preparing the way for you-know-who and some of the most memorable music on record.
Jan Garber’s Too Tired Victor from 1924 is similarly typical of its epoch: you have the future brass nucleus of two of the most prominent white bands steaming away from the platform with the driving-wheels a-whirling, in a very engaging doo-wacka doo vaudeville comic style, followed by a series of freewheeling solos, the most prominent of which is that of the banjo. Eddie Cantor, I feel, would have done justice to a vocal here, but the song doesn’t have one, so there!
Edisons are, of course, uniformly famous for being bland-to-dull, but for the well-known exceptions; but the Jack Albin I Found A Million Dollar Baby is jolly enough, and debuts the career of Harold “Scrappy” Lambert; then we move into the electric era with the Seven Aces and I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me, recorded in Atlanta. One of Columbia’s most popular territory bands, what used to be “Warner’s” Aces, now led by Ralph Bennett, play this version of Jimmy McHugh’s warbler, without solos.
Give Me A Night In June by Noble Sissle was cut the year before he and a theatre band to beat all other bands steamed off to London, the recorded output now commanding premium prices. The tune is by Cliff Friend, a man with a fondness for titles with “June” and “Moon” in them, who may have been solely responsible for the spoon-croon clichés still heard today. Sissle vocals unfortunately cannot fail to evoke the British blackface George Mitchell TV shows of the 1950s; his style is of the vintage of Bert Williams and Collins & Harlan, but with a level of “plantation” inflection and what American parlance calls “shilling” in the interpretation that would cause outrage today, were anyone to attempt to revive it. His accompanists are first-class; Andy Sannella and a favourite pianist of mine, Rube Bloom.
Bernie Cummins’ band has also been a long-time favourite for me, since the days Max Easterman and I used to listen to junked 78s in his room as students, after which Ron Jewson introduced me to Cummins’ Gennetts. When You’re With Somebody Else is typical of his hot-dance style; no giant virtuoso leaps, but an execution that is uniformly listenable and hot all the way through, with a more-than-acceptable novelty vocal from the leader. And with a drummer named Rocky Rockenstein, who could even think of not including him on a Big Broadcast?
Probably the most relaxed version ever of Nagasaki (other than Hugh Laurie’s in “Jeeves and Wooster”) follows, by the Ipana Troubadours. I think I like this version more than any other. Here is proof that a rather nice song can be successively bowdlerized over a decade, to become a pastiche, and you don’t need a Spike Jones to do it. I agree with John Leifert in the notes, that the edgy clarinet solo is putatively another favourite, Fud Livingston, which endears it to me a priori. Even Irving Kaufman, who will so often suck a song dry, delivers the vocal in an almost thoughtful style.
Etiquette shocks the (by now accustomed to Western Electric) ear with a Broadway recording, which as usual sounds as if cut using a poor connection on the old Atlantic cable. As often happens with Paramount personnels, Bill Haid’s Cubs is necessarily one of “probably’s” and “maybe’s”, and Rich’s guesses at various Coon-Sanders participants are likely right on. The performance is a happy one, and the theme contemporarily humorous. To follow, there is a sumptuous Paul Ash performance of a Gus Kahn-Elmer Schoebel composition: Ten Little Miles From Town. Ash’s is a theatre pit orchestra, so he has a variety of tools at his disposal in terms of orchestral voicing, and he uses them all.
“Sunshine Girl” Catherine Boswell (no relation to Connie, Vet or Martha) sings next a Harry Charles song, I’ve Been A Fool About You for Gennett. Miss Boswell represents that mid-point between diametric opposites; somewhere between Ruth Etting and Bessie Smith, where a white woman sings a torch song, probably self-accompanied, in blues-shouter style. It’s eminently listenable, and a change from the run of lightweight female vocals of the major companies.
Why Can’t You? Is a Shilkret version of a tune from Jolson’s first full-track talkie, followed by Ted Lewis and The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise. Here we have a subdued beginning, with Jimmy Dorsey playing a straight baritone solo, followed by a teasing call-and-answer clarinet/cornet duet for sixteen bars, then Spanier reminiscing in Dipper Mouth Blues mode over a trombone obbligato for another chorus, followed again by Dorsey pumping along on clarinet in double time over birdsong. Never let it be said that Lewis left any gimmicky stone unturned.
Scrappy Lambert emerges yet again as the vocalist and principal soloist on Sing Something Simple by Fred Rich. The song itself is no great shakes, but there follows a straight-mute solo by Manny Klein (for my money at least, though Rich states that there are those who say Berigan), that’s well worth the Lambert’s Golden Syrup you have to listen through. This gives way to a rather nice clarinet solo, which together, makes the listening worthwhile.
The Crown label is always a source of the unexpected, and the fact that Heartaches by the Embassy Dance Orchestra has no solos and totally unidentifiable personnel pushes Paul Small as vocalist to the foreground, making me aware of just how good he is. Then comes what we’ve all been waiting for: Annette Hanshaw and Crying To The Moon. The tune is nothing (bloody Moon and June again) but the accompaniment is Klein, the Dorseys, Lang, Rollini and Bloom, so the record is golden. How does someone who’s been gone for thirty years and who had absolutely no regard for her own recordings continue to charm as she does?
The Casa Loma has never been a favourite of mine, but Somebody From Somewhere, penned by George and Ira, is executed as smoothly as the Casa Lomans always did everything, especially in 1932. And I love a Gershwin tune (how about you?) It Was So Beautiful, introduced by Kate Smith in The Big Broadcast, appears here as a solo effort from Harry Richman. Rich’s notes say that Richman had two styles, loud and louder, but his performance here is rather nuanced, once we go beyond the verse. Again, though, my favourite version of this song, however, has always been… Annette Hanshaw’s, unreleased on Columbia. And now, here’s another waltz, and again a lovely record, I’ll Never Have To Dream Again, by Elmer Feldkamp and His Orchestra, with a vocal by the leader. The tune is an Isham Jones composition, and gives proof beyond the years of why Jones had the reputation he did in his time.
Helen Raymond’s London recording of Why Don’t You Tell Me So gives way to Claude Hopkins’ Minor Mania, the CD’s first “stomper.” Any Hopkins record will thrill, but Edmond Hall’s baritone solo works wonders, and the ensemble work is impeccable as always. Then comes Johnny Green’s 1935 waxing of Because Of Once Upon A Time, written by Bernard Maltin, uncle of present-day film critic Leonard Maltin, with a latter-day Jimmy Lytell in the cast.
Having earlier heard from one favourite pianist, along comes another to delight me, Joe Sullivan. He plays My Little Pride And Joy, clearly enjoying the experience. Sullivan’s ebullience is infectious, and this was clearly a piece he enjoyed. With no US release, some of us, including me, are hearing this for the first time.
Dolly Dawn, with the George Hall band, tells us Tomorrow Is Another Day, a song from the Marx Bros.’ 1937 film “A Day At The Races.” By now we’re into the “featured singer” era, and Dolly is clearly the star here. Nero by Eddie Farley is also of its era; very much a stomper in the vein of the Goodman band, reprising Muskrat Ramble in parts, and Little Brown Jug in others. The drumming sounds like Bauduc, but it’s Louis Kopppelman. Al Philburn is an unsung trombone great, and he’s featured here delightfully; in fact a great performance from all.
And to end, as is common with Big Broadcast CDs, we have an air shot. Irene Taylor stars with Charles Agnew and His Orchestra. The featured song is So Ashamed, and the vehicle is a 1932 NBC broadcast transcription. The performance segues into a different (unknown) vocalist, performing It Was So Beautiful so we have two performances of this tune for the price of one, though this latter version is unremarkable.
Once again, Rich succeeds in producing a CD, of which I’d guess 90% of even the most hardboiled of us are familiar with less than a couple of tunes. For me, as I said at the beginning, it’s always a thrill to get a new BB, and this one keeps the standard, as it has been all along, as high as high can be. This one deserves the same level of praise due the other nine: buy!
BOOK: MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE MUSIC. A HISTORY OF JAZZ DISCOGRAPHY. By Bruce D. Epperson. University of Chicago Press. 304pp, hardbound illus. ISBN: 978-0-226-06753-7 (also available as an e-book). $5 (available elsewhere for less). http://press.uchicago.edu
Reviewing a book used to be a fairly simple matter - the publisher sent the magazine editor a copy of the book, or the editor requested a copy from the publisher’s publicity department. This system worked well for a couple of hundred years at least, since the days of ‘learned gentlemen’s magazines.’ However, the rise of the e-book has changed all that. The publishers of this particular book choose not to send hard copies to non-US magazines, preferring instead to send e-book files, linked to book reader software which neither I nor you, dear reader, are likely to have heard of.
All went well, once I had signed up for various services, and the book was duly downloaded onto my iPad Mini and read in full. Fine - but I then bought its big brother, an iPad Air, and then the fun started. Try as I may I could not get the new device to be able to download the book, and in the end I gave up in despair. Therefore this review is based on my memory alone - hopefully a salutory lesson to book publishers to stick to the old tried and trusted method of actually sending out hard copies which can be annotated, turned down pages and all!
As to the book, or what I can remember of it, it is rather good - it will of course appeal to the majority of readers of VJM, being a detailed history of the art (or is it the science?) of discography, from its inception among (predominantly) jazz enthusiasts in the 1930s, starved of information by the record companies about the music they loved. The first forays in to the field were by well-meaning amateurs and wealthy dilettantes such as Charles Delaunay, whose personal opinions and bias counted for more than rationality and reason.
This state of affairs, with its often eccentric methodology and shoestring budgets, continued until the late 1950s, when a knight in shining armour and a librarian’s ordered mind - Brian Rust - burst onto the scene. The publication of thefirst edition of Jazz Records, 1897-1931, and the subsequent volume which covered the period from 1932-42, changed for all time the way discographies were compiled. True, there have been attempts to rethink the format but, ultimately, Brian’s chronological session/matrix/issue hierarchy has prevailed, being at once both useable and sensible.
Unlike some recent commentators and critics of Brian Rust’s often erratic filing and verification methods (most of whom have emerged from the woodwork after Brian’s death in 2011), the author is on the whole kind to ‘The Sage of Edgware,’ although he does like to beat him with the race-bias club, and anyone who knew Brian knows this to be both absurd and untrue, and he cannot defend himself - so I will.
Much is made of the rival attempts at comprehensive jazz discography - namely Walter Bruyninckx’s 85 Years of Recorded Jazz and Tom Lord’s The Jazz Discography Online and the degree of ‘borrowing’ that inevitably takes place in the discographical world. No other field of musical authorship is so riven by jealousy, suspicion, petty squabbling, name-calling and crass opinionating as discography.
Blues discography, and its struggle to define what ‘blues’ actually is covered at length, as are the more specialist ‘single artist’ and ‘label’ discographies, although the author could have devoted more space to such important figures as Laurie Wright, Walter C. Allen and Phil Evans, whose works on King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Fletcher Henderson, Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer are all models of discographical rigour.
The future of discography is also considered in depth - the rise of the online discography (often as dubious in the accuracy of its information as is Wikipedia) and whether there is still a market for hard copy discographies. Also, what actually gets into a discography is questioned, as increasingly the academics and their ‘show me the proof’ rationale take over from the enthusiasts in their production.
I can hardly say it’s a priority purchase, but it’s certainly an interesting study of a field of endeavour that impacts on most of us crazy enough to obsess about vintage 78s and LPs, but I would steer clear of having anything to do with an electronic version!
BOOK: PIONEERS OF THE BLUES REVIVAL. By Steve Cushing. University of Illinois Press. 400 pp, hardbound, illus. ISBN. 978-0-252-03833-4 (also available as an e-book). $75. www.press.uillinois.edu
Without pioneer writers, collectors and record producers such as George Avakian, Helen Oakley, The Ertegün Brothers, Charles Delaunay and John Hammond, the history of jazz would have been much different and much murkier. The same could be said for the 17 individuals profiled who were instrumental in launching the revival of country blues in the 1960s. Some of the names will be very familiar: Pete Whelan, Paul Oliver, Chris Strachwitz, Sam Charters, and Richard Spottswood who have been featured in VJM pages in one form or another over the past 50 years. Others include David Evans, Dick Waterman, Jim O’Neal, Mike Rowe, Ray Flerlage, Jacques Demetre, Bob Koester, Gayle Wardlow Bob Dixon and John Broven and Chris Barber.
They came from very diverse backgrounds: Barber of course was a well-known trad jazz musician in the UK who helped introduce British listeners to the blues by sponsoring appearances in the 1950s of Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Brownie McGhee which found the ears of young players like Eric Clapton and John Mayall.
Spottswood and Waterman got turned on by blues in their youth and followed their passions into the business side; Spottswood producing albums by such stalwarts as Skip James, Son House and Robert Wilkins and Waterman, who was part of the search team that rediscovered House and Mississippi John Hurt, became their talent manager. Strachwitz, who began producing Lightnin’ Hopkins for his Arhoolie label, carried his fondness for vernacular music into Tex-Mex and may other genres.
The interviews all have one thing in common: people who followed their passion for the music. They were not much for playing it. As noted, Spottswood, Waterman, Phil Spiro and Gayle Wardlow sought out the musicians who’d made these recordings decades before and helped provide them with a new audience. Wardlow and Whelan furiously collected their old 78s while Evans, O’Neal searched for blues musicians who had never been discovered yet offered rich and vital performances.
And Demetre, Charters and Oliver authored numerous books and articles to preserve their history and engage readers who had not heard early blues to begin listening.
Of course today, most people have come to know blues through the rock stars who had been inspired by those old records—it has taken awhile but the world generally knows that neither Clapton nor Robert Johnson “invented” the blues and that there was a rich and diverse well of music played and recorded long before they came along.
One amusing anecdote from Waterman was how, in a meeting with John Hammond and Son House at Columbia Records, Hammond proceeded to praise Robert Johnson …going on and on about him. Son House appeared progressively annoyed until Waterman interrupted that his client (House) “was the teacher, and Robert was the student..” The resulting album was one of House’s best later efforts.
Over the years, some of these individuals have attracted criticism, mainly of the “…young white businessman exploits elderly African-American artist..” type. That was inevitable.
Cushing is obviously sympathetic, offering in his questions the opportunity for his subjects to refute such critics and they do. And, regardless of the merit of such claims, the fundamental fact remains that without them, we would have heard no more for Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Robert Wilkins and others after their final recordings around 1930. What a loss that would have been.
2 CD SET: Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra - Highlights of the Great 1940-1942 Band. 49 tracks, Avid Entertainment, LC12869/AMSC1143. www.avidgroup.co.uk
It’s been said many times, and not without justification, that Duke Ellington never led a ‘bad’ band – though, as I pointed out in an earlier review, his earliest, pre-electric recordings gave little hint of the greatness to come. In later years, he also had his down times: the band he led in the early ‘50s was full of great names, but lacked audience appeal at a period when big bands were generally in decline and the fans’ attentions were focused on the small groups that dominated the modern jazz scene. The Duke only kept his big band going with the royalties he earned from earlier recordings, such as those on this CD. But Ellington showed then, as he had earlier, that his genius was in choosing just the right sidemen and inspiring them to greater things than they thought they could achieve; his come-back concert at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival – which featured 27 choruses by Paul Gonsalves on Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue - is the stuff of jazz legend…as indeed is the band he assembled through late 1939 and early 1940, which rounded out his Brunswick-Columbia contract and reached its full potential in his new RCA-Victor contract, which began in March, 1940, and features on these two CDs.
Ellington had a knack of snapping up versatile new-comers, as well as persuading well-established old hands to join his bands, a knack which is perfectly exemplified here. In 1932, he began a new series of recordings for Brunswick, which broke with old ‘jungle’ sound of the ‘20s. The rhythm was different, and a new voice was added in the brass section – Lawrence Brown on trombone: smooth, even sentimental. As the ‘30s progressed, Ellington refined the personnel of the brass section, bringing in Rex Stewart on cornet (in January, 1935) to add counterpoint and ‘edge’ to the trumpets of Cootie Williams and Arthur Whetsel, and to balance the now three trombones of Juan Tizol, Joe Nanton and Brown. When Whetsel left in December, 1936, Ellington further experimented with new faces: Wallace Jones, and then Harold Baker on trumpets. He twice, though briefly, brought in Ben Webster on tenor sax – of whom more anon. He was clearly also not entirely happy with his rhythm section: bassist Wellman Braud left, to be replaced by the duo of Hayes Alvis and Billy Taylor – one or other of whom Ellington from time to time dispensed with. However, the new direction he was apparently searching for really began to take shape in March, 1939, when pianist and arranger Billy Strayhorn arrived. Strayhorn was the first of three revolutionary new voices that changed the Ellington orchestral sound at the tail-end of the ’30s. Strayhorn’s compositions – Take the “A” Train for example - and his arrangements were to become one of the hallmarks of the Ellington band over the next decade, though his arrangements often not credited in the discographies!
The next new arrival was Jimmy Blanton, who joined the band in late 1939, followed by tenor-saxist Ben Webster a few months later. It’s often known as the “Blanton-Webster band” because these two men so utterly changed Ellington’s ability to move in a new musical direction. Blanton was one of those instrumentalists, who seem to appear fully-fledged out of nowhere. In fact, his first professional job, after leaving Tennessee State University, was with the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra in St Louis, MO – a band, which, though it only recorded four sides, was nonetheless remarkable for having been the training ground for stars such as Harry Edison and a series of drummers: Sid Catlett, Jo Jones and Kenny Clarke. None of these recorded with the band, and although some sources suggest Blanton made his first recordings with Jeter-Pillars, Jazz Records lists the bassist as Vernon King. It matters little: Blanton was, like Ellington himself, an innovator, and if Ellington’s talent was to spot him in an otherwise little-known band, Blanton’s great talent was to turn the string bass from a rhythm instrument to a full solo voice and add a totally new dimension to the Ellington organisation. Although Ellington had frequently used the bass to provide contrapuntal backing for front-line solos (behind Barney Bigard’s clarinet on Washington Wobble, for example) and for colourful four-beat breaks, extended bass solos were rare in jazz before Blanton came along, and were more often than not performed by the brass rather than the string bass – the exception being Slam Stewart, though many of his solos were more in the nature of vocalised novelties. Blanton changed all that: eight- and sixteen-note runs, delivered with an extraordinary crispness, but without the slapping that characterised so many earlier bass players, foreshadowed the style that would become the hallmark of the bop and modern jazz bassists, and showed Blanton to be a true revolutionary. He makes his presence felt right from the start of the first track, Jack the Bear, where he dominates the rhythm section and underscores the sparse front-line and piano phrasing. He was also, as can be heard on one of his four duets with Ellington, Body and Soul, a master of legato bowing; this track, along with Sophisticated Lady, indeed showcases his abilities in both modes. It’s noteworthy that Ellington himself adopts a much more modern approach in his piano playing on all four of the duets: the interplay between piano and bass on Pitter Panther Patter is one of the great moments of jazz, whilst Mr JB Blues is a model of sensitive understanding between two players.
Ben Webster was, both in terms of his style and experience, the polar opposite of Blanton. He was one of the trio of top tenor players of the ‘30s – the others being Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young – but quite different in style from both. Known as “The Brute” because of his rough and tough tone, he had played with some of the best big bands of the decade: Moten, Henderson, Calloway, Andy Kirk and Teddy Wilson. The importance of his joining Ellington, though, was that he was the band’s first major tenor sax soloist, and a big beast at that. He had – as mentioned above – been briefly with Ellington in the mid-30s, but his tenure from early 1940 on was when he made his true mark there. He adds a new texture to the reeds, and like Blanton, a new punchiness to the solo work. His contribution to Jack the Bear announces how different this band was to its predecessor: he tears out of the ensemble and drives the band forward. And his solo on Cotton Tail is extraordinary, though he demonstrates that he could deliver lyricism as well, with a beautiful legato solo on All Too Soon.
This is the Ellington orchestra re-born, with a whole new book to work with: of all the tracks Ellington recorded for RCA-Victor between 1940 and the 1942 recording ban, only Concerto for Cootie and Sophisticated Lady had featured previously in the repertoire. Instead of the re-visited standards, such as Mood Indigo, Solitude, New East St Louis Toodle-oo, we have stunning new compositions like Ko-Ko, Never No Lament, Blue Goose, Take the “A” Train and “C” Jam Blues, all destined, of course, to become the next generation of standards, not just for Ellington but for a whole new, wider generation of jazz groups. It’s worth mentioning, by the way, if you don’t already know the records, that these original recordings are quite different in many ways from the versions we’ve got used to from later years: with Ellington, nothing ever stood still! It’s also noteworthy that of the 49 tracks here, only eight are not compositions either by Ellington himself or by other members of the band, including several ground-breakers by Billy Strayhorn (Chelsea Bridge, “A” Train, Raincheck).
The new book, the new sidemen, seem to galvanise the old hands: listen to Barney Bigard’s clarinet solo on A Portrait of Bert Williams: the fluidity of his New Orleans roots is still there, but overlain with a tough, hard-hitting delivery that is almost at odds with everything we have come to expect from him. Much the same is true of Johnny Hodges’ alto work on Blue Goose. And Cootie Williams excels himself on so many tracks that it’s difficult to choose which to mention: but I personally have always been knocked out by his ensemble backed solo on At A Dixie Roadside Diner. Williams left the band in the Autumn of 1940, to be replaced by Ray Nance, one of only three personnel changes during this period (Otto Hardwick left for several months that Autumn, as did trumpeter Wallace Jones, replaced by Wardell Jones until his return; and, of course, Jimmy Blanton died of TB in 1941, replaced for the last four tracks by Junior Raglin).
These two CDs contain one of the greatest collections of Ellingtonia ever recorded, from a period when the Duke was at the height of his powers, both as composer, arranger and leader. One only has to listen to the voicings on Sepia Panorama, for example, to understand how everything he’d been doing for the previous two decades had gelled to produce the epitome of big band jazz, music that other bandleaders of the day could only dream of. They all had their stars, their magnificent soloists and fine rhythm sections, but none of them had Ellington’s sense of orchestral tone colour, his ability to blend solos and ensemble, to control the overall sound yet give free rein and encouragement to individual talents, to subtly keep everyone within the bounds of his own musical concept, yet let them play it their own way. In a Mellotone is a masterpiece of that concept: the trumpet and alto sax backed by an utterly distinctive chorale of section work. Contrast this with the controlled chaos of The Flaming Sword, with Sonny Greer and Jimmy Blanton’s rhythmic bombs, almost a la Kenny Clarke, driving the ensemble inexorably along. In previous years, Ellington had had to record from time to time what was frankly pot-boiler material aimed at non-jazz audiences: there is none of that here. There are no concessions to the few non-Ellingtonian compositions: Sidewalks of New York is thoroughly ‘taken over’ and Herb Jeffries’ treatment of Flamingo is like no other. Having mentioned Jeffries, I must also say that Ivie Anderson shines on all her vocals: she was truly at her peak at this point. This is also the period when Ellington’s son, Mercer, makes his first appearance as composer, with some landmark numbers: Blue Serge, John Hardy’s Wife, and Jumpin’ Punkins.
These tracks have been extremely well remastered from the original 78s by Dave Bennett. It has to be said that the RCA-Victor pressings of the period were considerably better than they were when Ellington was last recording for that company (in the early ‘30s), but, even so, the results here are exceptionally good and surface noise is only audible in a couple of places. If these are to be your only versions of this material, then you will not do better.
One interesting final note: several of the first few tracks - Ko-Ko, Jack the Bear , for example - were recorded by Ellington for an NBC radio series called America Dances, which was made for broadcast only on the BBC during the war. I discovered these some years ago, when doing a trawl for archive material, and to my knowledge they’ve never been listed in the discographies, let alone re-released. What’s interesting though, is that they were recorded several months before the Victor sessions, and so, apart from those lucky enough to see the Ellington band in concert or on the US club circuit, the BBC’s listeners would have been the first to hear these classic numbers! I wonder how many realised they were listening to history being made...
3 CD SET: DEEP SOUTH PIANO. Little Brother Montgomery, Sunnyland Slim, Lafayette Leake, Tuts Washington, Dewey Corley, Roosevelt Sykes, Gus Perryman, Gus Frazier, Adam Cato and Leon Rene. Agram Blues Series AB3CD 2026. €19.99/ $36. www.agramblues.nl
In the latter 1960s and early 1970s, collector Karl Gert zur Heide, author of a book by the same name, traveled to the USA collecting information from the pianists noted above, and informally recording them as well. The results are presented in this fascinating package.
As the title suggests, Little Brother’s songs comprise the largest share of the collection. Like the Jelly Roll Morton Library of Congress sessions, the pianist runs through a series of reminiscences of early New Orleans pianists (he was born in 1906, about 20 years after Morton) and even invokes the name of the nefarious Aaron Harris who Jelly claims to have whipped in a pool game.
Little Brother shows his “music for all occasions” background and plies through standards (Do You Know What is Means To Miss New Orleans), Tin Pan Alley Blues (The Dangerous Blues), spirituals, his own Vicksburg and 44 Blues and then songs of other pianists. He’s obviously enjoying the sessions and communicates that readily to the listeners.
Lafayette Leake and Sunnyland Slim, of course, are major blues artists: Slim in his own right and Leake as a session man on dozens of Chicago blues recordings. They stay in their elements here, mainly blues and boogie woogie pieces. Dewey Corley was a member of the Memphis Jug Band who recorded these pieces (mostly his versions of 1940s blues recorded by Big Bill, Jimmy Yancey and Roosevelt Sykes) several years before he died. Most of the other pianists were New Orleans session men who played the expected mix of blues and rags. Sykes, a major name in blues contributes two tracks here, Rock Me in the Morning and The Way I Fell.
Although the home recording process has its limitations, producing occasional flutters with the tone a bit clangy, the good natured enthusiasm more than compensates. Every one of these tracks is an enjoyable listen. Yes, we are there at the rent party! Wiggle your toes and nod your head. Don’t miss this collection.
BOOK: JAZZ: SO MUCH IN MY LIFE. By Jim ‘Bert’ Whyatt. Grimsay Press. 161pp softbound, illustrated. ISBN 978-1-84530-154-5. Available from the publishers at The Roan, Kilkerran, KA19 8LS, Scotland. www.thegrimsaypress.co.uk
The death of Bert Whyatt last year at the age of 92 robbed us of one of the most prolific jazz discographers and record reviewers.
Over the last few years Bert had gethered together a personal history if his life’s work connected with jazz and, with a few additions, his widow, Bee, and two sons Chris and Jay were determined to publish his posthumous autobiography.
This well-illustrated book is a treasure of reminiscences and portraits of musicians, mostly American, fellow collectors and discographers, both here in England and in the States. When travel and circumstances became more affordable, Bert and Bee spent regular holidays in the USA to meet some of his many correspondents and to enjoy the jazz scene. Particularly fruitful were their visits to the Sansalito home of Ruth Spanier, who friendship allowed Bert access to Muggsy’s personal archive, which to ultimate fruition as Bert’s bio-discography of Muggsy - The Lonesome Road.
Of interest to all jazz lovers will be Bert’s original passion for the music, his fortuitous wartime meeting in the R.A.F. with Trevor Benwell, founder of VJM and his growing columns both for this magazine and Max Jones’ Melody Maker. Then there were regular reviews for Jazz Journal and also articles in Mississippi Rag on lesser-known Chicago musicians. If you thought that discography was just about dates and matrix numbers, it was their relevance to the bigger jazz picture that interested Bert. His meeting with Milt Gabler, founder of Commodore Records, must have been iconic.
This is an unusual and interesting book and a fascinating hors d’oeuvre for Bert’s long-awaited bio-discography of Bobby Hackett, reviewed elsewhere in this issue.
CD: LIVE FROM BUENOS AIRES: Brian Holland, Bryan Wright, Danny Coots Rivermont BSW-2233. See advertisement in this issue or at www.rivermontrecords.com
This album is excerpted from a series of three concerts at the inaugural Buenos Aires Ragtime Festival in November last year. Although the title (and indeed the name of the event itself) suggests a totally ragtime content, the music on the CD is a celebration of popular-music piano artistry, using tunes from Bizet to yesterday, performed in front of enthusiastic sell-out audiences.
Here, consonant with any purist interpretation of the purpose of the gathering, are The Silver Swan from Scott Joplin, Steeplechase Rag, written by James P. Johnson in 1916, and Louisiana Rag, arguably the first published ragtime composition, from 1897; but the collation also features piano classics from other eras and genres, like an absolutely stunning duet version by Holland and Wright of Confrey’s Kitten On The Keys, as well as knockout performance of Earl Hines’ St. Louis Blues Boogie interpretation of the perennial Handy blues classic. Add to this Jitterbug Waltz from Fats Waller in 1942; Caravan, the Ellington classic penned by Juan Tizol the same year; Carmen Boogie, (after Liberace!), even a version of Red Lips Kiss my Blues Away with vocal by Bryan Wright and his wife, Yuko (visualise: performing in tea-ceremony-worthy kimono for an audience in Argentina) and you have performance magic.
There are also exquisite offerings of pieces composed by Bryan Wright, SPEBSQSA Stomp; and Brian Holland, Spanish Autumn; plus putatively the first recorded performance of Hinges, published by Teddy Hahn in 1909.
The three musicians here are all on top form, whether in combination or solo, the performances are polished and enthusiastic. Of course, it’s live, which adds to the charm of it; there’s no studio add-on and the audible enthusiasm of the audience propels the performers to give their utmost.
I absolutely love this CD. I have never been “into” recordings of live performances of classic material, because so often the performance does not live up to a prior studio version. But here, in one package, are some of the finest piano performances I have heard in the popular music idiom. You need to hear them.