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44-CD & 2-BOOK BOXED SET: BLACK EUROPE. The Sounds and Images of Black People in Europe, Pre-1927. Bear Family BCD 16095. Bear Family Records, Grenzweg 1, 27729 Holste Oldendorf, Germany. €490. www.bear-family.de
At last, this long-anticipated, oft-discussed, historically important project is now available! The brainchild of writer, collector, curator and researcher Rainer Lotz, it is the culmination of his lifelong obsession with documenting the rich, but little-known and poorly-understood treasure house of black musical and visual recorded material that was produced in Europe before the advent of electrical recording. And what treasure it is! It is sometimes hard for our American cousins to begin to comprehend that, before Mamie Smith, and the blues craze that she started in late 1920, by far the greatest quantity of performances by black artists on disc were made in Europe, in particular in Britain and Germany. The most prolific black recording artist before Mamie and Bessie Smith was not the celebrated comedian Bert Williams, but his one-time understudy in In Dahomey, Kentucky-born Pete Hampton, whose considerable output on disc and cylinder, from 1902 to 1908 is still being rediscovered and reappraised.
The Black Europe project stemmed from publication of Rainer’s 1997 book ‘Black People’ (is it really 17 years??), which was a series of essays on black performers who worked and frequently recorded in Europe in the pre-jazz era, and this set is the natural culmination of the project - to make available all known and available recordings made in Europe by black artists pre-1927. The project originally envisaged reissuing film as part of the set but, as anyone who has had dealings with film archives and resources know, these organisations are more interested in licensing their material at huge fees to the likes of global brands with bottomless wallets and advertising agency budgets rather than specialist record companies. Consequently the film element isn’t present, but the films and the performers themselves are discussed and illustrated at length, and where copies are available on the internet, web addresses are cited.
So what exactly does one get for your all-but €500? Well, firstly, exclusivity! The pressing/print run is limited to 500 copies worldwide, so it is guaranteed to be a future-proofed collector’s item. Second, the quality of the product - two coffee table-sized full colour hardback books, 650-odd pages in total, with over 100 individual essays on the performers by an impressive array of writers and researchers, headed up by Rainer Lotz himself, but also including such specialists as Howard Rye, Jeffrey Green, Horst Bergmeier and Konrad Nowakowski. Illustrating the text are hundreds of rare photographs, full colour posters, sheet music and colour photos of virtually every record and cylinder included in the set. Finally, the music itself, all 1243 tracks on 44 CDs! And if this set is something of a first, the music itself has several ‘firsts’ - the first blues harmonica on record (Pete Hampton’s The Mouth Organ Coon back in 1904, sounding uncannily like William McCoy nearly a quarter of a century later), the first stride piano on record (Carlisle & Wellmon’s Chip Chip from 1911), the first black scat vocal (Charlie Manny & Bob Roberts’ All Night Long from 1915), the first racially-integrated ragtime and jazz bands on record (the Savoy Quartet, 1917-20, the Queen’s Dance Orchestra (1921-22) and Victor Vorzanger’s Broadway Band, 1922-24) and the first black solo instrumentalist on record, mandolinist Seth Weeks, who recorded on cylinder and disc in London in 1900 (I was extremely fortunate to find one of only two known copies of one of his brown wax Edison Bell cylinders at an antique fair a couple of years ago). Add to the mix some of the most important black string band recordings - those made by Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra in London in 1916-17, the earliest (and incredibly rare) records of Josephine Baker, Sam Wooding and Arthur Briggs, the only extant recordings of an early black stage troupe, recorded in Berlin in 1908 on a disc that was synchronised to a now-missing film of the performance of Coontown’s Ragtime Dance, the wonderful ‘ragged time’ piano accompaniment to Belle Davis and Her Piccaninnies’ Just Because She Made Dem Goo-Goo Eyes, and the romping stride piano of Elliott Carpenter on Hatch & Carpenter’s That’s All There Is There Ain’t No More, and one is still only scratching the surface.
Which neatly brings me via way of a bad pun to the sound quality. Remastering engineer Christian Zwarg has worked wonders with the material given to him to work with (I know, because I provided some of the original transfers and vouch for the fact that several were in the condition one normally associates with a Charley Patton Paramount found in a junk shop in Mississippi). Christian has worked wonders, making even the most awful original discs sound amazingly clean, fresh and alive, and manages to maintain a sonic uniformity throughout. And a word of praise to the original long-forgotten recording engineers who frequently obtained results that would put recordings twenty years their junior to shame - Seth Weeks’ mandoline positively leaps out of those 114-year old cylinders!
Before rushing out to part with your hard-earned money, I do in fairness have to make one small but significant caveat; Black Europe isn’t just about black singers and instrumentalists - it encompasses the whole spectrum of documentary recorded sound by black people. This encompasses a huge swathe of ethnographic recordings made in London, Berlin, Vienna and Paris - empire-building countries which before 1914 were key players in The Great Game and the Scramble for Africa. Part of understanding the people of the newly-conquered African lands was understanding their languages and communication methods. In particular the Germans and Austrians brought a teutonic efficiency to ethnography, recording thousands of wax cylinders and discs of the languages of African races. This culminated during the First World War in their making hundreds of recordings of black African prisoners of war, captured fighting for the British Empire. This huge and important archive of material also appears on this set, and of the 44 CDs, 21 are of this type of material, plus recordings by black political activists and religious leaders. That being said there is more than enough material to more than satisfy the jazz and ragtime fan and student, including in their entirety important and hard-to-find recordings by Mitchells Jazz Kings, Gordon Stretton, Hughes Pollard, Edmund Jenkins and Dan Kildare.
For those on a tight budget, Bear Family have produced a ‘lite’ set entitled ‘Over There!’ which consists of 3 CDs featuring selected tracks by Pete Hampton and his wife, Laura Bowman, The Savoy Quartet, Josiah Ransome Kuti, grandfather of World Music star Fela Kuti, and Josephine Baker. The mini-set also includes a booklet of biographies, track listings and photographs. I presume that this was assembled to cash in on the relative fame of Baker and Kuti (well, Fela...), but it does seem to be a funny way of going about things. Considering the importance of the recordings of Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra, Mitchell’s Jazz Kings or Sam Wooding and their relative obscurity outside of Europe, a set of CDs with a broader selection would surely have been a more attractive proposition for jazz-oriented purchasers.
Yes, there are faults - too minor to mention here - and yes, there is the question of those twenty-odd CDs you are unlikely to ever play, but these criticisms pale into insignificance when one considers the historic importance of this set; jazz histories and reference books will need serious revision in the light of much of what is presented here. There are just too many surprises and delights to mention in a review. I know it’s a lot of money, but it’s a lot of words, a lot pictures and a whole lot of music, nearly all of which is unknown to all but the most arcane scholars and collectors - and completely unknown in the birthplace of the majority of the performers to be heard thereon. This is musical Genesis for most American collectors and enthusiasts - put your hand in your pockets and find about the music before Mamie, Bessie, Louis, Lemon and Jelly.
Make this your priority purchase for 2014 before all 500 are snapped up by universities and music schools!
CD SET: THE COMPLETE CHICK WEBB & ELLA FITZGERALD DECCA SESSIONS 1934-1941. Mosaic 252. 8 CDs, 166 tracks. $136. www.mosaicrecords.com
“Man, you should have heard Chick Webb live at the Savoy! Nobody could cut that band!”
Read any of the jazz histories that concentrate on the 1930s, and that quote pretty much sums up the sentiment about Chick Webb’s outfit that played The Home of Happy Feet for a decade until his death in June, 1939. As the title of this package suggests, the records the band made were more about his young singer, Ella Fitzgerald, than Chick’s roaring group which left the jazz critics expressing disappointment over the band’s output.
However, this Mosaic set accepts this reality but demonstrates in track after track the birth and development of one of the towering figures of jazz vocal. The amazing this about this set is that Ella’s voice and signature style were nearly in place for her first session in the Spring of 1935. She was 16 years old, sang like she knew each song inside out and swung like mad. Check out the first session from July of that year, I’ll Chase the Blues Away and Love and Kisses. Six months earlier, she had been living on the street and living a life so traumatic that she’d never discuss it later on. How could she have made such a transformation in such a brief time? She never offered a real answer. Probably, she was born to sing, and swing.
Her appeal to jazz and pop fans was immediate and by her third recording session (April, 1936) she already dominated the proceedings, singing on all four tunes, and taking two choruses and the verse, instead of one chorus. Under the Spell of the Blues is the highlight here. Not surprisingly, influential critics like John Hammond, and fellow musicians took notice very quickly and “borrowed” her for a Brunswick all-star session with Teddy Wilson, and then a guest session with Benny Goodman’s band.
The June, 1936 titles, Sing Me A Swing Song and A Little Bit Later On showed her edging toward maturity of style (at the ripe age of 17) and in October, she scored her first hit record, You’ll Have to Sing It (better known as Mr Paganini), which she kept performing decades on.
The mature Ella emerges at the November sessions with the pared-down Savoy Eight. Her version of My Last Affair is the quintessential swing ballad and she finds every jazz-inflected nuance possible. It was a record I played for a couple of aspiring singers who wanted to learn how to sing in that style. Listen and learn. That same session produced Organ Grinder’s Swing. I found a battered copy of this 78 when I was in high school (which, in the early 1960s corresponded to Ella at her peak) and was amazed at how similar this 1936 record was to what I was hearing from Ella on the radio in 1963. The Mosaic liner notes dwell on the now (potentially) politically incorrect lyrics but on the final chorus, Ella is off to the races with some furious scatting and improvising while Taft Jordan feeds her with mighty trumpet licks. Here is the Ella that would win Down Beat’s 1937 award for the best vocalist and would command any song put before her.
One of the titles she did with Goodman’s band on Victor was Take Another Guess. Ella recorded this song (a jaunty poke in the eye to an ex-lover) for Chick Webb two months later which, not surprisingly, coincided with Decca’s demand to Victor that it withdraw the Goodman disc from the market.
She scored another hit with Rock It For Me in late 1937, another song she kept in her repertoire in later years, and, in May 1938, broke the Top Ten with A-Tisket, A-Tasket.
Reworking lullabies and nursery rhymes into swing time kept Tin Pan Alley in clover during the latter 1930s, (want to hear Roy Eldridge sing Mary Had a Little Lamb sometime?) and this one reaped a whole harvest of clover. Critics have panned this disc for years for the childish lyrics and the inevitable rush of imitations it spawned. But remove the child words and it’s a very swingy, catchy arrangement (by Van Alexander who is still with us and contributed to the discography on this set).
Ella and Chick Webb were at their popular apex in 1938, a constant presence on radio, a home base at the Savoy Ballroom and several hit records. It was also the last year of Chick Webb’s life. He enjoyed its commercial success and to him, A-Tisket A Tasket was worth the price of admission. But pop music began changing after that. Romantic ballads were becoming more popular – I mean romance novel romantic, not romance with a kick- and, while Ella served them well, they gave the rest of the ensemble less and less to do, further frustrating the critics.
Even while the songs grew less interesting, there are a number of stand-out gems: Undecided, Don’t Worry About Me; Stairway to the Stars and, one the other end of the scale, a few weak A-Tisket sequels… yes, Wubba Dolly deserved all the scorn the critics heap upon it, but it’s the bad apple in a glorious orchard.
Chick Webb’s orchestra passed into Ella Fitzgerald’s name after his death (though the real leader was their booking agent Moe Gale) and the focus, of course, was on ballads. There are a number of magnificently intimate ballads here: Jim, Taking a Chance on Love (happily she got a crack at a true A-list song) and Shake Down the Stars.
Now to the instrumentals (or mostly so). First, the title of this set is a misnomer: The set actually opens with Chick Webb’s 1929 Brunswick session, Dog Bottom and Jungle Mama; two magnificent sides featuring some of trumpeter Ward Pinkett’s best work. Dog Bottom is an uptempo romp reminiscent of Fletcher Henderson while Jungle Mama features a long “preaching blues” plunger muted solo by Pinkett, backed by some fierce riffs. These were originally issued as the Jungle Band, the same name used to disguise Duke Ellington’s name from the Victor folks, which whom he allegedly had a recording contract.
Heebie Jeebies was undergoing a revival in 1931 thanks to the Boswell Sisters who’d scored a minor hit with it that year, and this is Webb’s first recording bearing his name. Shelton Hemphill, Jimmy Harrison, Benny Carter, Hilton Jefferson and, of course Webb, make this a true all-star recording. The performance basically follows the stock arrangement - surely reworked by Benny Carter - and features a cracking good Hemphill spot. Blues in My Heart was a hit tune from that year, a bitter torch song of which there were many in the hangover of the Depression, and Webb’s version is one of the best. So Sweet is hotter than the title, again with excellent solos all around, and its tune was transformed into another song a bit later.. but for the life of me I can’t remember what it is.
With Chick Webb broadcasting from the Savoy in the summer of 1934, it was natural that a newly-formed record company like Decca would sign the band to a contract. Louis Armstrong was still in Europe and between recording contracts, so Webb’s first Decca session that year were basically efforts to beat Louis’ time while he was away: That Rhythm Man and on the Sunny Side of the Street, both heavily feature Taft Jordan while Chick’s then arranger Edgar Sampson contributed three swing-era classics Blue Lou, Stomping at the Savoy and Don’t Be That Way, which came to define the Savoy sound: smooth, melodic riffs played in a medium to quick tempo with lots of excellent solos. Taft Jordan shines throughout as do Sandy Williams (trombone) and Hilton Jefferson (when he had the chance). Teddy McCrae and Elmer Williams (tenor sax) were always, in my opinion, the weak link, often playing pat phrases in a drone-tone.
The instrumentals in the remainder of the collection are a mixed bag. Liza (the flip side of A-Tisket A Tasket on the original issue) and Harlem Congo deserve all of the critical praise they’ve received over the years. Webb knew how to drive a band and he certainly does so on these sides with excellent solos from the aforementioned. Some of the others, like Facts and Figures, Go Harlem sound a bit busy – indeed, one of the great appeals of Webb’s 1933 Columbias (not included here) is Samson’s use of negative space, whole note rests that allow Chick and his rhythm section to be heard pushing the band. On these latter arrangements, it seems like he is doing the opposite, packing so many brass figures that the result seems to impede the swing and obscure the rhythm section. Most of the instrumentals all the way to the end in 1941, with Bill Beason taking Webb’s chair, follow the Savoy sound, which certainly spawned imitators in songs like Jersey Bounce, with the soloists – especially Taft Jordan – making these a must-listen.
This landmark Mosaic meets the company’s usual lofty standards of production, sound transfer (some of those Deccas were pressed on nasty stuff) and liner notes. I did get the occasional hint of “if only” about the dearth of instrumental tracks in the liner notes, but in context, if Mosaic were offering the complete early work of a jazz instrumentalist of Ella’s stature, there would be no such “if only’s.” Ella deserves the top billing. Celebrate it by listening to this set over and over.
BOOK AND CD: FROG BLUES AND JAZZ ANNUAL NO. 3 AND COMPLIMENTARY CD. Edited by Paul Swinton. 176 pp. softbound, illus, plus 25-track CD. £29.90. www.frog-records.co.uk
It would be almost impossible to do justice to this publication in a review; even more so than its two predecessors; it is so crammed with items of interest to all lovers of early jazz and blues, particularly to those with an appreciation of history, that a mere scan of the contents would make it highly desirable to all such aficionados. All I feel able to do is give you a resumé of those contents and some comment on the quality of their coverage, which is always high and in many cases outstanding. New light is shed, sometimes in their own words and always with insight and authority on, to name just a few, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson, Cow Cow Davenport, Lee Collins, Freddy Keppard and many others who, though by no means household names, will be of deep interest to those who give their music more than a passing glance; for instance Fate Marable, the Hokum Boys, Charlie Cordilla, Tommy Johnson and Ishman Bracey, Moanin’ Bernice Edwards, “Thunder” Smith, Ruth Willis, Roberta Dudley and Gus Aiken. If some of these names mean nothing to you, buy the book and find out how they relate, in the rich tapestry of our music, to those who do. There is so much here that even if you are not fascinated by everything you will still find much to enjoy and much else to intrigue and educate you. In between the pieces about specific characters there are more general ones about the violin in the blues, the relationship of the blues with the railroads and the dance hall in Mandeville where Bunk Johnson and Buddy Petit played. There are sections of extracts from the press, artists’ impressions of some of the featured musicians, short discographical studies relating to specific labels and some articles rescued from oblivion such as Bruce Bastin’s medicine show section which was omitted from his classic book of the ‘sixties Red River Blues. Towering over all, appropriately, is editor Paul Swinton’s exhaustive (and no doubt exhausting) investigation into Winston Holmes and his important impact on Kansas City music through his Merritt record label.
As is traditional with Frog, although the intention was evidently to give the production a “coffee table” elegance some gremlins have crept in. The typesetting and proof reading are far from accurate with, in some cases, whole sections of text repeated as well as other less serious blemishes. The whole thing is a patchwork of different and, in some cases, incompatible graphical styles and the use of colour is sometimes hard on the eyes. None of these aspects will be a real problem to those at whom this volume is aimed. It is a production for enthusiasts by enthusiasts, and expert ones at that on both sides although neophytes will find that it takes them right to the heart of things if they approach it with an open mind. As I have inferred above, it is difficult to take it in all at once, so keep it on the side and dip into it at leisure; you will then find yourself going back to it for the wealth of information it contains and becoming interested in, and well informed about, things you did not care so much about before. We are considerably in Paul Swinton’s debt for editing, producing and contributing to such an important collection of documentation, a worthy successor to the two previous volumes. It comes, as before, with a complimentary CD relevant to the topics and musicians on its pages.
Malcolm Shaw comments...
Chris Hillman has examined the content of the new Blues Annual very capably and in very complimentary terms, as Chris does with everything he touches. I might add also, that I stand in awe of Chris’s own contribution to our knowledge base, especially with his own books, latterly Paramount Serenaders and Paramount Piano, both produced involving the collaboration of Paul Swinton, Richard Rains and Roy Middleton. These words do not concern the content of the work, except to echo and support any praise given by Chris, and express the thought that, when I received the new Annual and CD, I was yet again amazed by the depth, diversity and value of what was in both the book and the CD, more so even than I was when I reviewed the second Annual in August of 2011.
No, this opinion piece is based not on content, but on philosophy. The Storyville analogy I used in the past to highlight my esteem of the work done, is what now gives me pause.
Each of these Annuals is an agglomeration of contributions from knowledgeable and dedicated experts in their field. This mass of detailed information comes, then, to an editor, whose job it is to compile a publication that will be both interesting and readable. Laurie Wright was very skilled at this, with Storyville. Each issue had a theme, a central article, a personality feature, around which the issue revolved. Other articles either were germane to the genre or were regular features. So every two months, there was an appetising meal prepared, to be anticipated and enjoyed, in a format that delivered meat, potatoes and two veg in digestible and enjoyable proportion. This was not accidental; it involved some fairly strong choices in terms of what to include and what to defer.
Much of the digestive difficulty I have here has to do with the quantity of diverse yet very intense material, and how random the criteria for its inclusion seems to be. I have had the book for upwards of three months and frankly still find it pretty much impenetrable. It’s encyclopaedic in its scope, but in its nature cannot have the ordered alphabeticism of an encyclopaedia. Each time I start to read, the subject-matter is as intense as a diet of caviar, and how much caviar can you eat in one sitting? “More than you, mate…,” I hear you jeer. Yet I ask you to think the message over, before passing the death sentence on the messenger. For all Laurie’s editorial skills and judgement; once Storyville ceased bimonthly existence, and the body of work was tied up with a ribbon, how many of us knew where and in what issue a particular fact lay, before Bernhard Behncke created the superb index? It became just too much “stuff” in once place.
Paul alludes to these difficulties himself, in both his introduction and afterword. Time passes, people are sending material; it’s all wonderful. Then, as Paul puts it, “a catalogue of minor and major disasters” raise the anxiety level and lower the time available to do what absolutely must be done. Stuff has to be included, stuff has to be left out. We try to please those we know have put out so much effort for us, and this often means including last-minute material regardless, even unproofed or unchecked, as some of it clearly is. The passing of friends also affects our productivity. John Collinson and John Capes were friends to all of us, and death in our close vicinity knocks even the best-laid plans on their arse.
So, I beg you to understand, I come not to bury, but to praise. This valiant work needs to continue, and it’s superb, both in terms of the CD production at Frog and the print work. But as one who, in his first solo editorial effort, willingly made promises to a lifelong friend to honour his efforts, and then let him down unforgivably, when the publisher rushed an incomplete, unfinished and unproofed work out on the quiet “for the Christmas trade” rather than allow a worthy product to be concluded, I have to opine that we only have one chance to get the job right.
“Well, it’s not like we’re talking about illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages, are we?” In every way, yes we are.
BOOK: A PHONOGRAPH IN EVERY HOME. THE EVOLUTION OF THE AMERICAN RECORDING INDUSTRY, 1900-1919. By Allan Sutton. Mainspring Press. 312pp, softbound, illustrated. ISBN. 978-0-982559529. www.mainspringpress.com
The earliest years of the record industry (i.e. that late 19th century) were somewhat akin to the Gold Rush - ‘get rich quick’ schemes and dubious enterprises headed up by charlatans, crooks, fairground showmen, duplicitous lawyers and those with an eye to the main chance. By the beginning of the timeline of this book - 1900 - the industry had started to mature, attracting middle class, affluent buyers to their products with prominent advertisements in ‘quality’ weekly periodicals, but the cowboy days were still bubbling beneath the apparently calm surface. The new weapon of choice was the patent; between them Victor and Columbia held powerful patent rights which effectively created a monopoly for them, especially when they pooled their patents after years of fruitless (and expensive) litigation against one another.
If you have read Allan Sutton’s two companion books in this series, ‘Recording the Twenties’ and ‘Recording the Thirties’ (the latter reviewed in the previous issue of VJM), you will know that the author writes clearly and authoritatively, preferring to avoid the intricacies of lengthy and intricate legal dissections that mired The Fabulous Phonograph back in the 1950s. As a consequence Sutton manages to both inform and entertain, adding pertinent anecdotes along the way.
The 1900-1910 period in particular was a period of great experiment, innovation and improvement in the recording industry, and the author covers in detail such developments as the transition from wax cylinder to ‘indestructible’ formats, the move from 2 to 4-minute cylinders, and the perfection of Berliner’s primitive ebonoid discs to the well-recorded, beautifully-pressed 10 and 12 inch discs that Victor were producing by 1910, and the amazing clarity of Edison’s Diamond Discs. All these advances were heartily promoted by their manufacturers, and the book is copiously illustrated with advertisements and illustrations from trade periodicals of the period.
Not all these developments were ‘advances’ - Victor and Columbia’s pooled patents on lateral cut recording forced competitors to either go behind these giants backs and incur their legal wrath, or find alternative methods of making records. Thus there was a spurt of companies entering the recording business in the early to mid 1910s who used either ‘needle cut’ or ‘universal cut’ technology, but which needed a special or adapted player to play them. Set up costs, lack of advertising budgets and poor financial structuring meant that these companies had to rely on tried and trusted (for which read ‘cheap’ and ‘overexposed’) studio singers and performers, and this, coupled with an inferior product, meant that most went the way of all flesh after a brief period of activity. Added to this category could be placed the fad for ‘mini discs’, set in motion by Henry Waterson’s 10 cent Little Wonder discs, which shook the industry to its core in 1914. Most are of little interest to jazz collectors, but lurking under the cloak of anonymity are some gems, including several by Wilbur Sweatman and one fine side by the Louisiana Five, as well as several good ragtime performances by Princes’ Band.
The early years of the 20th century was the peak of immigration to the USA, particularly from Russia and Italy, and Sutton examines how the record industry catered for this untapped market, along with field trips to satisfy demand for their products from Latin America, China and the Caribbean. Using information from the diaries of recording engineers, he traces their activities and escapades - even getting embroiled in revolutions!
The improvements in recording technology made the record-making business much more appealing to the operatic stars and their managers in what was the Golden Age of opera, and several chapters are devoted to the record industry’s infatuation with the ‘gentrification’ of their catalogues. Despite this, the great polar shift in American music came from the more proletarian interest in social dancing - which in part stemmed from its adoption by the Smart Set as a rather jolly wheeze after dining at Rector’s or Reisenweber’s. Thus the scene changes from the politesse of the Victor Military Band’s anodyne renditions of dance tunes through the orchestrated frenzy of Europe’s Society Orchestra to the first ‘jass’ records of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Wilbur Sweatman and Earl Fuller. And you know what that started!
The following decade was tumultuous for the recording industry, both technologically and musically, but the seeds of these developments were most definitely sown in the period covered by this book, and as such I recommend it to jazz and blues enthusiasts alike as a useful and informative guide to the period which made their music ultimately accessible.
CD: SWINGIN’ & JUMPIN’. Bunny Berigan Broadcasts 1937 - 1939. Hep Records CD96. www.hepjazz.com
Bunny Berigan is often compared to Bix Beiderbecke: there are indeed some stylistic similarities – Berigan often used lines of semi-quavers in his solos, what are sometimes referred to as ‘ghost notes’; he had the same bell-like attack when playing open horn and some of his improvisations display a Bixian counterpoint. Equally, he was an alcoholic, who died of cirrhosis or pneumonia aged 33 (reports differ on the ultimate cause, but he did outlive Bix by some five years!) and who also, played in the Whiteman orchestra, and quit after a year, unable to accept the band’s commercial approach. But Berigan’s overall style owed more to Armstrong than Beiderbecke, though he had none of Armstrong’s ability to ‘compose’ perfectly honed set-piece solos… rather, Berigan’s solo work was uninhibited but of two kinds: either brilliant, bold and technically masterly flights that soared as high as anything Armstrong achieved – or over-stretched disasters, lacking inspiration, which fell to earth almost as soon as they were launched. And like Beiderbecke, he wasted his enormous talent with his casual lack of discipline in both his personal and musical lives.
For much of his early career, Bunny Berigan preferred to play in studio bands – he apparently disliked working full-time in other people’s groups. He can frequently be heard accompanying vocalists in the ARC studios, playing a half-chorus solo (many with a tight mute), though his presence is, like that of Red Nichols in the ‘20s, often presumed rather than proven! He started out in college bands, and was first hired professionally by Hal Kemp, though Kemp refused to book him at first – back in 1928 – because his tone was thin and rasping; two years later, in May 1930, he took him on, by which time he had, by whatever means, developed a round, big sound (Digby Fairweather described it in Jazz, the Essential Companion as “the most generous sound any trumpeter ever had”); he left after ten months to join Fred Rich’s studio band, where he can be heard playing some of his best early solos.
Much of the early 30s were spent in other studio bands, but by 1935, Berigan had, for the moment, shed his inhibitions about working full-time for other bandleaders and had joined Benny Goodman. Goodman recalled that it was Berigan’s solos on such numbers as King Porter Stomp that drove the crowds into ecstasies on tour at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles and contributed so much to the birth of the big band swing craze. He went on to play for Tommy Dorsey in early 1937, again contributing hugely to the popularity of that outfit.
Berigan’s first recordings under his own name during this period were for Decca, followed by ARC-Brunswick-Vocalion, where his recording of I Can’t Get Started was a huge hit and led to him being booked for the CBS networked Saturday Night Swing Club. It’s at this point that the first of the broadcasts on this CD date, though the SNSC announcement and RCA Magic Key number that opens the CD (from June 1937) – You Can’t Run Away From Love Tonight – are actually pre-dated by a session for the Madhattan Room at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City. This tune was Berigan’s first for Victor with his newly formed big band, made just two months earlier and his solo shines in the ‘live’ setting; indeed, his predilection for playing to an audience is evident on track 2, Mahogany Hall Stomp, where his solo work is inspired and much more exciting that on the Victor recording he was to make a month or so later; he already had some big names in the band, such as Ford Leary (trombone) and Georgie Auld (tenor), but their playing at this stage of their careers is entirely outshone by Berigan – Auld’s improvising is intense and passionate, but rhythmically staccato, whereas the leader’s command of both rhythm and melody is both fluid and fiery. Mr Ghost Goes to Town is given a somewhat restrained treatment, but that Henderson warhorse Big John Special shows Berigan on much more interesting form. This number closes with an announcement over what was by now Berigan’s signature tune, I Can’t Get Started.
There follows a series of recordings of broadcasts made a year later from the Paradise Restaurant, where Berigan took up a lengthy residency in Spring 1938. The band had matured in the intervening months, and Georgie Auld’s solo on Back In Your Own Backyard for the first time begins to rival Berigan’s in its sense of form and timing. Sonny Lee had by this time replaced Ford Leary on trombone and his playing is both better and better suited to the band. The vocal on Downstream, by Gail Reese, is forgettable – she has an unappealing nasal delivery – but Auld, again, delivers a fine if brief solo. Louisiana is one of the few tracks on this CD to have been available on previously – 13 of the 19 are issued for the first time here – and is noteworthy not only for Berigan’s playing but for a thumping trombone solo from Sonny Lee and excellent section work from a band at the peak of its form. This number is taken at a most relaxed pace, whilst Peg o’ My Heart drives along unusually fast and it’s a tribute to the band that they can handle it at this tempo without losing their precision of delivery. Curiously, they sound less at ease on Royal Garden Blues, taken at the same speed, with the section work coming across rather jerkily, though both Berigan and Auld play superb solos.
I’ve never thought much of Trees as a jazz vehicle, but the arrangement here – by Abe Osser – turns it into a fine swinging number, with a Berigan solo that starts down in the trombone’s range and ends in the stratosphere! Ray Conniff had joined the band (on trombone) by this time and was to contribute some excellent arrangements over the succeeding months. Shanghai Shuffle uses an arrangement by the master himself, Fletcher Henderson, played with fantastic swing. Berigan’s solo is masterful, but Georgie Auld also shows that he has come of age as a soloist: his phrasing is nothing short of perfect. I should mention here the fine drumming by Johnny Blowers, who propels the band throughout with splendid backbeat playing, worthy of my favourite, Ray Bauduc.
Ray Conniff’s first arrangement (on these tracks – but probably also his first for the band) comes up next, with Gangbuster’s Holiday, which Conniff also composed. Georgie Auld’s fine solo is punctuated by brass ‘stabs’ – a Conniff trademark – and Conniff himself gives a fine trombone solo, fluid and punchy at the same time. This is also a first outing for the band’s new drummer, Buddy Rich. The location of this recording, made in October ’38, is unknown. The final four tracks date from a year later and were broadcast from the Manhattan Center. Three of them – Night Song, I Poured My Heart Into A Song and the title track Swingin’ and Jumpin’ – have been re-issued before, but Little Gate Special (sic) is out for the first time. The band’s style had changed by this time, with more stress on smooth arrangements and schmaltzy vocals (by Danny Richards, who encapsulated everything that Frank Sinatra wasn’t!). Only Berigan’s own fiery solos rescue both Night Song, and I Poured My Heart Into A Song, though the Manhattan Center audience clearly loved both performances. Swingin’ and Jumpin’ is a better number, arranged by Horace Henderson, with excellent section work, though Paul Collins drumming is only a pedestrian substitute for Rich’s. Little Gate Special is another Conniff arrangement, but opens with some of the worst of swing’s later obsession with incessant riffing, though the solo work is good, even thrilling in places. More pounding riffs close out this number, with even Berigan giving into riffs rather than taking a solo such as he would have done a year earlier.
The sound quality on these broadcasts is startlingly good, with none of the drop-out and fluffiness that’s often associated with airshots. Berigan’s career as a top flight player was sadly much too short, so these tracks are a welcome addition to his relatively small repertoire. The liner notes are copious and detailed: my only complaint is that the typeface is so small as to be difficult to read under anything but very bright light.
Recommended for anyone who like first-class trumpet playing!
BOOK: JAZZ AND MACHINE-AGE IMPERIALISM: Music, “Race”, and Intellectuals in France 1918-1945. By Jeremy F. Lane. Hardbound. 226 pp. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2003. ISBN 978-0-472-11881-6. $60/£62.95. Also available as an e-book. www.press.umich.edu
Jeremy F. Lane is Associate Professor in the Department of French and Francophone Studies of the University of Nottingham. This is significant because the book is plainly not intended as a contribution to the literature of jazz. It is a contribution to the literature in English about French culture and society. It reproduces only generalities about jazz with the sole exception of the few pages devoted to the Guyanese Léon-Gontran Damas’s analysis of Louis Armstrong’s “bitter laughter” and Martiniquan René Ménil’s observations about the créolité of Duke Ellington’s music in his ‘jungle-band’ period.
One of the author’s many strengths is that he does not attempt to translate terms such as créolité and nègre. The latter especially has a range of meanings with no precise equivalent in English and selective translation has frequently been used to make French writers appear either as racists or not, at the whim of the translator. Intriguingly, Lane demonstrates by this device that it is as easy to form an impression of the true intended meaning from the context when nègre appears in an English sentence as it usually is in French.
Lane also triumphantly passes the next test to which a work with this coverage must now be subjected, namely familiarity with recent works which have completely transformed understanding of what really happened between Charles Delaunay and Hugues Panassié in the 1940s: Anne Legrand’s Charles Delaunay et le jazz en France dans les années 30 et 40 (2009), Jacques Chesnel’s Le Jazz en Quarantaine (1940-1946) (1994), and especially Gérard Régnier’s Jazz et Société sous l’Occupation (2009). The latter deservedly won the 2009 book prize of l’Académie du Jazz, and uses previously unavailable material from the archives of the État Français (Vichy) to pose and answer many previously unaskable questions.
It is safe to assume that none of these works will ever be translated into English, and their contents will therefore remain unknown to most British readers and almost all Americans. In consequence, a particular responsibility rests on any anglophone writer using them. The most controversial questions are not directly relevant to Lane’s enquiry but he is clearly aware of the issues and especially as they concern Delaunay’s post-war redaction of his wartime activities. He is also clearly aware that the differences between Delaunay and Panassié had initially much more to do with politics and religion (and that redaction) than with jazz, and acknowledges that anglophone writers have almost without exception ignored this, if indeed they even knew it. Anyone who read the texts in French would have been in no doubt.
By limiting his main text to the period 1918 to 1945, Lane avoids until his ‘Coda’ any consideration of the playing out of the bataille du jazz in later years. He builds his main thesis around a series of key texts representing both French and “French colonial” reactions to jazz. For Metropolitan France, there are Le Jazz by André Schaeffner (1926), Aux Frontières du Jazz by Robert Goffin (1932), Panassié’s Le Jazz Hot (1934), Charles Delaunay’s De la Vie et du Jazz (1939), and André Coeuroy’s Histoire genérale du jazz, strette, hot, swing (1941). For the francophone members of the African diaspora he focuses on works by two of the founding fathers of négritude, Léon-Gontran Damas’s Pigments (1937) and Léopold Senghor’s 1939 essay ‘Ce que l’homme noir apporté’. As the third of the founding fathers, Aimé Césaire, had little interest in jazz, Martinique is represented by René Ménil’s contributions to the journal Tropiques (1941-1945) and also by the hostile view of jazz in Jane Nardal’s 1928 article ‘Pantins exotiques’.
From these works he draws out a series of interactions between viewing jazz simultaneously as an injection of a salutary return to ‘primitive’ simplicity and a reflection of machine-age complexity, and the various ways in which the later writers tried to resolve this apparent contradiction. This culminated in the explicit embracing of jazz by Panassié and Senghor as an antidote to the machine age, substituting instead a counter-ethnocentrism which Lane maintains is actually rooted in the same ‘primitivist’ assumptions, a case made neatly and elegantly. At the same time he acknowledges that Panassié later repudiated many of the theses of Le Jazz Hot and especially his view that white involvement had brought “an indispensable musical improvement” to jazz. (As this is the only one of Panassié’s works I don’t have in French I cannot check this quotation, as I have others. Where I have checked, Lane’s translations are of a high standard.)
It hardly needs saying this is a gross oversimplification of a closely, and for the most part clearly, argued thesis concerning French reactions to jazz and their relationship to the French imperialist mission and its similarly contradictory aims of Metropolitan dominance and assimilation. He writes in English, entirely eschewing “publish or perish” dialect, but he does divert from time to time into references to philosophical and sociological theory whose comprehension requires a working knowledge of the technical terminology of those disciplines.
In his analysis of the Vichy and occupation periods, Lane fearlessly goes where few before Régnier had dared to tread and I would imagine this is the first serious consideration of Coeuroy’s 1941 work in English or possibly in any language. Coeuroy, a musicologist branded as a collaborator, is a non-person. He sought to assimilate jazz to Vichy’s theories about cultural traditions and terroir. He did this by claiming that jazz was in fact a creation of French Louisiana, was in all essentials a branch of French folk music to which the nègres had contributed “only” the “inimitable timbre” of their voices, and, wait for it, swing. The nurturing of these characteristics into a new music was a French achievement of which France could be rightly proud and was now developing (so please don’t ban jazz oh mighty Maréchal!). The book contains long lists of contemporary French musicians. As Lane points out this thesis is not an entire fabrication. The book was passed by Vichy’s censors. My own copy began its journey to the Lyon junk shop where I bought it from the Bibliothèque des Chefs, Groupement No. 18, Chantiers de la Jeunesse (Vichy’s pale reflection of the Hitler Youth). The sting in the tale is that it was never opened and came to me completely uncut!
Coeuroy’s thesis was used by Delaunay in wartime writings and talks, with, so he claimed after 1945, satirical intent. Where Régnier merely expresses scepticism about these claims, Lane analyses the pre-war De la Vie et du Jazz and finds similar impulses towards “making jazz French”. In assessing the essentially hostile view of jazz taken by the Nardal sisters, who condemned jazz for promoting exoticism and a demeaning view of women of colour, an attitude mirrored by Césaire, he curiously fails even to consider that the preference for beguine expressed by these Martiniquan writers might just have been a cultural preference for which they were seeking justifications. Ménil, who considered beguine marked by “levity and vapidity”, dismissed it precisely as the music of bourgeois assimilés.
Unfortunately Lane fails to resist a ‘Coda’ in which he considers the writings of André Hodeir and Franz Fanon, and after dealing very fairly with Panassié’s pre-war writing proceeds as is customary to assess his post-war writings through the prism of his opponents. Only someone who has not read Panassié’s later writings could believe that he thought “New Orleans jazz played by black musicians represented the only authentic form of the music,” and it is a pity that Lane has fallen at the last fence after he has in his main thesis so meticulously allowed the quoted texts to speak for themselves before interpreting them. It is a small point in the context of the main argument.
If you can read the French texts, you will still find the comparisons and analyses here interesting. If you can’t then this will not mislead you about what they say and you can still judge Lane’s interpretations. Whether any of this has anything to tell us about the music itself is arguable, but as I said at the start this is a book about French culture and society, and a rather good one.
BOOK: PARAMOUNT’S RISE AND FALL. THE ROOTS AND HISTORY OF PARAMOUNT RECORDS. By Alex van der Tuuk. Mainspring Press. Softbound, 292pp, illus. ISBN.978-0-9852004-2-8. $39 US/$49 Canada/$55 R.O.W. www.mainspringpress.com
The first edition of Alex van der Tuuk’s groundbreaking study of Paramount Records and how a mid-western furniture manufacturer became the most important documenter of black American music in the 1920s and early 1930s was first published in a hardback edition in 2003. In the ensuing ten years both the author and several international researchers have contributed greatly to our understanding of Paramount’s operations and the artists who recorded for them. Much of this information was disseminated in short-run publications or academic journals - for instance Karl Gert zur Heide’s remarkable eight-part study of Ma Rainey appeared in the predominantly Dutch-language ‘Doctor Jazz Magazine’. Alex’s dogged determination to hunt down all new Paramount-based research published since 2003 means that the new paperback edition of this book has a lot of new information. Birth and death dates of several important artists have been corrected, as have several recording session dates - an ongoing process first seriously addressed by Max Vreede and Laurie Wright, using contemporary newspapers for source material to trace when artists were appearing in or near Paramount’s key recording locations (initially Chicago and New York, but later in Grafton, Wisconsin).
Alex has brought the Paramount story almost up to date (I say almost because the newly-released Revenant/Third Man Records Paramount box set, which will be reviewed in the next issue of VJM, adds even more to our knowledge of Paramount and its recording artists), with an additional chapter on the sale of Paramount to John Steiner and the subsequent piecemeal disposal of assets and rights and the thorny (and currently very pertinent) subject of just who owns what.
As is now expected from Mainspring Press, print and production quality is first class, with all the photos and classic Paramount artwork from the hardback edition (plus several new ones including photos of Jimmie O’Bryant and Charlie Jackson).
Needless to say, if you missed the hardback edition (now out of print), make this a priority purchase. Highly recommended.
BOOK: MISSISSIPPI HILL COUNTRY BLUES 1967. By George Mitchell. University of Mississippi Press. 144 pp, softbound, illus. ISBN 978-1-61703-816-7. $40. www.upress.state.ms.us
The 1960s was the decade of rediscovery for many traditional blues artists, a number of whom were still going strong and playing well after recording in the 1920s and 30s. In 1967, a college student named George Mitchell, along with his wife Cathy, left their home in Minnesota on a quest to record and photograph Mississippi blues artists before they passed into history. The fates were kind. On arriving in the Delta town of Como , Mitchell stopped at a gas station and asked where he could find Fred McDowell who had recently recorded several traditional blues albums. “That’s me!,” came the attendant’s reply and McDowell’s entrée into the world of Mississippi delta blues was the catalyst that produced a treasure trove of photos and recordings.
In these pages we see and meet McDowell, Joe Callicott, R.L. Burnside and his extended “blues” family, and Othar Turner, a member of a fife and drum ensemble playing music that harked back to ante-bellum times.
Mitchell is a talented photographer working in black & white, who captures mood and character – certainly because his subjects felt as ease with him and his wife. Today, the front porch photo of an older African-American man with a guitar is a cliché’ – probably to the point of parody – but it was all fresh and new when Mitchell was there. And, the humanness he captures in his images can never be cliche.
Each of his subjects is a chapter. The opening is an evening at Fred McDowell where he jams with a harmonica player, Othar Turner, Jesse Mae Hemphill and Napoleon Strickland . We meet their friends, family members, tends their gardens and even look in their fridge. We’re at home with them, wishing we could stay longer to take in the good times, good music and affection.
Mitchell’s recordings were eventually released on two LPs for Chris Strachwitz’ Arhoolie label in 1969, and some of the photos appeared in a book he published in 1971.
Mississippi and the nation were changing in the latter 1960s. Time was beginning to catch up to those traditional blues players. Callicott and Rosa Lee Hill passed on within two years of Mitchell’s visit. Fortunately others like David Evans continually visited the area to record these and other blues people. But, again, this book gives us a window to the soul of traditional blues, if not the sound. And for that reason it’s essential.
BOOK: PARAMOUNT PIANO. Chicago, Richmond , Grafton 1923 - 1932. By Christopher Hillman and Roy Middleton with Paul Swinton. Softbound, 125pp, illus. £18 + pp. Cygnet Productions, PO Box 4, Tavistock, Devon, PL19 9YP UK. Email: email@example.com
This is the companion volume to Paramount Serenaders, the discography which covers Paramount issues with instrumental content, either as the accompaniments to vocalists or as straight recordings. This present book, then, does the same for records featuring piano accompaniments and solos.
Paramount was the main label of the New York Recording Laboratories, which were confusingly located in Port Washington, Wisconsin. The recordings themselves were made originally made in New York City, but as Paramount shifted its artists roster increasingly towards the Race market, it used studios in a number of other locations: Chicago, IL, Richmond, VA and latterly at its own pressing plant in Grafton, WI. Details about Paramount recordings, especially personnels and dates, have long been a source of puzzlement and frustration to discographers and collectors alike. The company folded in the depths of the Great Depression in 1932, and its files and inventory of hardware were dumped away in a warehouse; according to Sutton and Nauck (American Record Labels and Companies), Decca wanted to buy up the Paramount masters in the mid-30s, but discovered the majority had already been sold for scrap. A few years later, the few surviving masters and other parts were donated to the WW2 scrap drive.
Paramount’s use of different studios in different locations, usually for short but intense recording periods of a week or so (until its own Grafton studio came on line in 1929), is one of the reasons why dating the recordings is so difficult – matrix numbers appeared in apparently unrelated blocks as a result; another is that the company lacked an efficient and extensive marketing and distribution network and relied in many areas on travelling salesmen and mail order. Pressing runs were often small and sales even smaller, thus the rarity of many issues doesn’t help. Paramounts in good condition can play with enough – sometimes remarkable - clarity to hear the accompaniment reasonably well, especially in the earlier acoustic days. Later pressings always seem to wear much less well, and usually turn up in appalling condition, which makes identification that much harder, especially as the studio balance is sometimes poor and the recording level too low. So it’s a task that has absorbed much time, energy and research effort over many years. To those who would say, well, why bother, it’s the music that matters, I can only echo Laurie Wright’s dictum, that discography is “musical and social archaeology…an art and a science”. It helps us understand the lives and careers of the artists involved, as well as much else about the musical world they and the buyers of their records inhabited. Without the dedicated work of those like the authors of this present volume, we would not only know much less about who played what, where and when, but also considerably less about the backgrounds and movements of otherwise well-known names such as Jimmy Blythe, Ma Rainey and Charlie Patton, who remained for many a year just names, shadowy figures with no real personal existence beyond the record labels they appeared on.
This discography has been painstakingly compiled, building on earlier work by Max Vreede, Laurie Wright and others; but, in particular, with reference to the kind of historical research material that has fortunately become much more available, via the Internet, and newspaper clippings libraries. Apart from the most comprehensive listing so far of Paramount recordings featuring piano solos and accompaniments, there is detailed background material on the company’s activities; reproductions of newspaper advertisements and publicity flyers; scores of photos of the artists themselves and their record labels; and dozens of footnotes on the - often disputed – identity of who the backing artist may be. Above all, the authors and their many collaborators have listened very carefully over many years to the pianists, in an attempt to give a definitive opinion on them. This, combined with the historical details from original source material, has cleared away many of the fanciful claims made over the years. Equally, though, much still remains unconfirmed and the authors make no definite identification in such cases.
The two main pianists used by Paramount for many years were Lovie Austin and Jimmy Blythe, and at the end of the book there are further listings of their work beyond the Paramount studios, as well as a section of corrections and additions to the earlier Paramount Serenaders. But, even for one such as myself, who has a fair number of Paramounts on the shelf, there are many names that are either unfamiliar or even unknown. There is so much new information here, which makes this an indispensable companion to the earlier Paramount discographies.
Included with the book is a 26-track CD selection, representative of the many pianists who appeared in the company’s artists’ roster over the years; it’s offered as ‘a complimentary gift and study aid’, so you can judge for yourself in many cases who’s responsible for the accompaniment! Apart from Austin and Blythe, they include Richard M Jones, Will Ezell and “Tiny” Parham, as well as much less well-known figures like “Hop” Hopkins and Bob Call. The transfers are ‘flat’ (in EQ terms) and as good as you can expect, given the rarity of so many issues and heavy wear they often suffered. We must be grateful for the hard work that has gone into producing this book.
BOOK: QUINCY JONES, HIS LIFE & MUSIC. By Clarence Bernard Henry. University Press of Mississippi. 184 pp, softbound. ISBN 9781617038617. $35. www.upress.state.ms.us
Quincy Jones’ name is everywhere. Anyone in the USA who has watched TV and anyone in the world who has listened to contemporary popular music has heard his arrangements and composition, for he remains one of the busiest composers and arrangers to this day.
This book covers Jones’ music from his beginnings 62 years ago, as a teenage trumpet player in Lionel Hampton’s band, sitting alongside Clifford Brown and Art Farmer, to his career as one of the most renown composers in Hollywood.
Jones spent most of his formative years in Seattle, Washington, far from the racial segregation that affected most young musicians of that day. As a result, he was exposed early to a broad variety of musical influences. His shot at the big time came in 1952 when he joined Hampton . Jones was part of those legendary Paris sessions under Clifford Brown’s name of the early 1950s, made when they were touring France with Hampton. Jones did a number of arrangements (all on the QT from Hampton’s ever-vigilant wife Gladys who tried to close their moonlighting operation down.)
He experience in Paris transformed Jones from a budding jazz talent into a multi-faceted composer. He began studies with Nadia Boulanger who taught master classes in classical music theory. With her, he developed a deep understanding of voicing, harmony and arranging beyond the relatively small ensembles of jazz groups. Later in the decade, he signed on with Dizzy Gillespie as section man and arranger, but in 1959, scored a successful Broadway show, Free & Easy.
Along the way, he also learned the business side of the music industry, eventually becoming an executive with Mercury Records. He achieved wider fame after moving to Hollywood and producing film scores for movies such as In The Heat of the Night and for the Love of Ivy, both international hits. From there, it was TV, and to music for Roots, one of the most popular series ever shown in the USA. As the sound of music changed in the funk and hip hop, Jones successful incorporated these elements into his writing to stay current.
The book, like this review, offers an overview of Jones career in music, skewed to his involvement in and interest in African American influences, but lacking a lot of the fascinating insights and anecdotes that someone of his stature could offer. This work is a good start, but the real book on Quincy Jones is still an unwritten melody.
BOOK: SWEET, HOT AND BLUE – St. Louis’ Musical Heritage. By Lynn Driggs Cunningham and Jimmy Jones. McFarland & Co. 215 pp softbound, illus. ISBN 978-0-7864-7384-7. $25.00. www.mcfarlandpub.com
This work is a reprint of an earlier hardbound edition, from 1989. It concerns itself with the entire spectrum of music and musicians from classical, to jazz, to pop and rock & roll. The common thread is an association (though not necessarily one by birth) with the city of St. Louis. I will say I was ignorant of the connection with that city of many people whose work I otherwise know well. For example, Chuck Berry was raised there, (which I did know) though the authors gave me the new information that he was born in California on January 15th, 1926. I hadn’t been aware till now of the California birth, since Rolling Stone, Biography.com, Wikipedia AND the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame all misinformed me that he was born in St. Louis, and what’s more, all agreed on a different date: October 18th; coincidentally in the same year. He also “developed a fascination with Caribbean music in 1956… injecting the rock and roll with a Latin beat (!)… some five or six years before America discovered the calypso stylings of Harry Belafonte…” Belafonte made million-sellers Banana Boat Song, Island In The Sun, and Mary’s Boy Child in 1956-7. He, in adopting the style and popularizing the tunes of Kitchener, the Iron Duke, King Radio and Mighty Sparrow, had followed the lead of the Andrews sisters, who filched Rum and Coca-Cola from Lord Invader in 1944. Belafonte was an imitator, yes indeed, arguably an opportunist, but no-one could possibly accuse him of following Chuck Berry’s lead, in either style or material.
And I’m afraid, after that, there’s not a whole lot more to say. That’s the whole story. The format is blurred and inconsistent, especially for anyone with particular interest in the contents of VJM. The authors, now deceased, cobbled together enough pages to fill a book; well and good; but ink on paper in itself does not constitute information. There are “canned,” third-party biographies, generic enough to have been culled from publicity material. There are immense, rambling interviews, transcribed verbatim, a dozen pages some of them, which contain material along the lines of “This is Jimmy Jones, and we’re here today to interview Miss Carol Whomever, and we’re in the lovely home of Somebody Else, and I’ve got to say we had a heckuva time gettin’ here, ‘cause it’s snowin’ up a storm outside. So, Miss Whomever, how are you doin’, today?” “Oh, not so good, my back’s been…” You get the drift.
On the other hand, there are mentions of people any of us would give half a crown and more, to hear more about… but… mostly it’s a paragraph or two, as in the entry for Irene “Eva” Taylor (sic) an erroneous combination of her real name and the one she only used in a professional capacity, who was born in St. Louis in 1895. Her parents’ names are given (Gibbons, of course) then simply a list of dates by year; when she toured with the Pickaninnies, when she worked with Clarence Williams (no mention of any other relationship with him) and her death from cancer in 1977. But the great crime is a mention of her last professional gig: “1948: Worked with Bessie Smith at a Memorial Concert, Town Hall, New York City.” Bessie Smith had been dead for ten or eleven years, depending on the month of the concert. Dewey Jackson: similar treatment: in 1919 Jackson “joined Charlie Creath on the JS, and (sic) old tub subject to breakdowns.” The association with Fate Marable is vague and seems also to be misdated, and Harvey Lankford becomes Langford. As if this were not insult enough, Creath (if anyone had a musical association with St. Louis, it was he) receives no other mention in the book. “Horsecollar” Draper, one of those to whom the book is dedicated, and who seems, by all accounts, to have been respected by and associated with everyone in the music business, has no descriptive segment of his own. And so it goes on: “Jimmy Lundsford (sic) came through here…” “William Weldon, we called him ‘Casey Bill,’ he played an electrical saw and he made it sound just like a violin and he was really good at it.” A dangerous pursuit indeed; yet no mention is made of any recordings where a guitar might have been used, or where Weldon might have sung as a soloist, or made records with “Blues” in the title, or played earlier as part of some long-forgotten group. James “Stump” Johnson was called “Stumpy” because he was short. He made some records. His best-known song was You Buzzard, You.
E-mail, they warn us, is for ever. However, my thought is that the only entity researching today’s e-mails for information in the next century will still probably be the US government. The eternal medium is ink on paper, from the Dead Sea Scrolls, up to this morning. There have been marvelous books put together, detailing jazz and blues in a particular region, using a particular language or a particular group of people. I am privileged to know or to have met and be able to mention Duncan Schiedt, Dan Vernhettes, Paul Garon, who authored just such books. Their works are standalone sources. Then you have the biographers, like Tom Lord, Chris Albertson and Walter Allen, the discographers and documenters, like Brian, Richard and Bernie, Max Vreede, Laurie Wright, David French, John Davies, Steve Calt, Alex v.d. Tuuk: there have been dozens more, in whose shadow I am unworthy to stand. Their books will last; their information will be precious, a century hence. Then, you have this… for $25.
The recycling centre in my nearest town has a large skip (dumpster, if you’re in the US, like I am,) marked “compost.” In it, you can deposit anything made from cellulose-based materials: cardboard, waxed paper, fibreboard, chipboard and they specifically mention hard and soft-cover books. I am assured, the contents are finely shredded. Guess where I’m headed on Tuesday.