Monday, 14 November 2011

Lester Young. Part 1

The other night Benny Goodman, Basie, Lester Young, Jo Jones, Buck Clayton and Harry James got together in a small Harlem joint and jammed from two-fifteen to six in the morning. The music was something tremendous, for everyone distinguished himself. But one conclusion was inescapable: that Lester Young was not only the star of the evening but without doubt the greatest tenor player in the country. In fact I’ll stick my neck out even further: he is the most original and inventive saxophonist I have ever heard. (John Hammond)

If you think of the quintessential jazz photograph from the late 1930's - 40's, it's likely that you'll picture a small night club, curling cigarette smoke and a saxophone. Lester Young, who along with Coleman Hawkins was the most influential swing tenor sax player of his time, would probably be in that picture. He was the first jazz hipster - he wore a pork pie hat, held his sax at a 45 degree angle and coined the phrase, "cool". He was known as the President of Jazz, or simply "Pres". Yet he had the substance to back up the style.

Coleman Hawkins wrote the book on how to play the tenor sax. He was renowned for his gruff, aggressive tone and for his unorthodox approach to manipulating the harmony of a song. Most of the tenor sax players of the time attempted in some way to emulate him. Yet Lester Young did not. Young began playing on a c-note sax, a popular instrument in the 1920's made popular by Frankie Trumbauer. The register is somewhere in between the tenor and the alto. When Lester changed over to the tenor he tended to play the instrument a little higher than normal. His sound is deceptively simple for that but his playing was extremely profound. His style was more relaxed as he tended to float around the notes with a great sense of rhythm.

He was born in 1909 in Mississippi but spend most of his youth in and around New Orleans. He cut his teeth playing with the territory bands in Oklahoma before ending up in jazz scene of Kansas City in the early 1930's. He ultimately ended up in the original Count Basie Orchestra and was making his first recordings in 1936.

Shoe Shine Boy
His first recording with a small group and right from the off he demonstrates a completely different tone from his contemporaries, Hawkins Webster and Chu Berry Light and airy played with adventure and abandon. Lester always preferred the small ensemble setting. This tune also perfectly showcases the innovative rhythm displayed by Jo Jones and Walter Page.

Jones-Smith Inc by Shoe Shine Boy on Grooveshark

Roseland Shuffle
A superb high tempo showcase for Lester Young and Count Basie on the piano. The back and forth between the two is awesome. This is also a perfect example of riff style swing popularised by the Count Basie Orchestra. This was recorded in 1937

Roseland Shuffle by Count Basie on Grooveshark

Young would continue to make some great small group recordings in the late 30's and early 40's. (His work with Billie Holiday was a particular highlight and something I will tackle in a separate post.)

Lester Leaps In
An uptempo number from 1939 that would prove to be a big inspiration to those who emulated Lester Young's technique.

Lester Leaps In by Various Artists on Grooveshark

He left the Basie band in 1940 and was to spend the next few years recording in Los Angeles and New York before being drafted into the army in 1944. This was to prove to be a pivotal moment in his career and his life...

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Chu Berry

“He’s one of the fastest, most inventive and creative minds that has ever been in my band. He doesn’t set his choruses, he continually bobbing up with something he hasn’t done before.” Fletcher Henderson

Leon "Chu" Berry was one of the most prominent tenor saxophone players of the 1930's. His reputation was on a par with those swing sax players that proceeded Coleman Hawkins. Yet he possessed a very different style from Hawkins and he showed no fear in trying to push the instrument further, as jazz evolved from the New Orleans/ Chicago style in the 20's to Swing in the 30's. Berry was even present at some of the early sessions at Minton's Playhouse in New York, the time of early bebop.

He began his recording career by playing on one of the last sessions of blues legend, Mamie Smith. This more or less defined his early work, by sitting in on the sessions of Benny Carter, Spike Hughes, Teddy Wilson and Billie Holliday. The bulk of his recordings were with the big bands of Fletcher Henderson and later, Cab Calloway. He was renowned for pushing his fellow band members to new heights as he sought a way of developing his own sound and jazz music itself.

His technique was not as growling as Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster. His sound conveyed a much smoother, mellower tone with a wonderful vibrato. While Webster could display his trademark guttural sound on a high tempo number like Cotton Tail, Berry could also show his chops but with a much softer tone on a song like "Sittin' In". While I'm not saying that one song is better than the other it does prove that this was an extremely versatile instrument and that sax players of this era could express themselves in different ways. This song was from a fantastic session recorded in late 1938 with trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Check it out.

The session also included Berry and Eldridge's experimental version of Body & Soul. Recorded almost a year before Hawkins' seminal version, it showed that they were not afraid of experimentation.

Chu Berry was to sadly die just a few years later at the age of 33. While touring with the Cab Calloway Band he became involved in a fatal car accident. It's a testament to his talent that, although he died so young, the body of work he left was to ensure his place among the greats of swing tenor saxophone and as a jazz pioneer.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Satchmo By Satchmo. The Louis Armstrong Tapes

To mark the 110th anniversary of the birth of Louis Armstrong (Aug 4), BBC Radio 2 is commemorating the event with a couple of programmes devoted to the man himself.

Kicking things off tonight is a documentary looking at the private, home made tapes made by Louis himself. The tapes were recorded between 1950 - 1971 and have gone largely unheard by the general public. This is a great chance to delve into the inner thoughts of one of the most important musicians of the 20th century as he ruminates on his career and the people he knew or worked with; from Bessie Smith to Joe "King" Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton (who it seems he has a bone to pick with!)

The man responsible for the documentary is Paul Sexton. Here is a piece he wrote in The Telegraph regarding what we are to expect.

Also, here is a link to BBC Radio 2. The programme begins at 11.00pm BST and will probably be available online for a while after.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Ben Webster

Ben Webster was regarded as one of the "big three" (or four, including Chu Berry, depending on who you talk to) leading tenor saxophone players of the swing era . After 1935, when Coleman Hawkins decided to leave for Europe, Webster, along with Lester Young, were the heirs apparent in filling the vacuum. He was, however, no clone of Hawkins. He was highly regarded as having a completely individual style. He ranged from having a smooth, sensual and lush sound with a heavy vibrato on ballads to a very harsh distinctive growl on more up-tempo numbers (hence his nickname, The Brute). He did however share a common trait with Hawkins in that they both came from Kansas City, which meant that their playing styles always retained an element of the Blues.

He was on the scene in New York in the the mid 1930's before hooking up with the Duke Ellington Orchestra shortly after WWII broke out. This was an important time for both Webster and Ellington, so much so that the period became known as The Blanton-Webster Band. (Jimmy Blanton was one of the first jazz bass players to use the instrument for soloing and helped pioneer the "pizzicato" method of plucking the bass strings). Check out one of the most famous tunes to come out of this time, Cotton Tail, where Webster's aggressive growl comes to the fore.

The 50's was a very busy time for Webster as he made a lot of solo albums and found time to collaborate with a lot of great musicians, including Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum. Here's Time After Time, a song from his 1957 album Ben Webster & Associates. This is a superb example of the sensual tone that he could extract from his tenor sax when it came to playing bluesy ballads.

For me the Ben Webster you want to listen to firmly depends on your mood. His most adventurous work in my opinion was in the early days with Duke Ellington's Orchestra. Ellington knew his musicians very well and composed his music with them specifically in mind. In Webster's later work he appears to be more comfortable with the ballads and in developing his unique sound, rather than challenging himself musically. This is not to take away from any of his later work as some of the albums from the late 50's and mid 60's that I have listened to are superb.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The Cannonball Jazz Library 7: Sidney Bechet.

The very early recordings of Sidney Bechet make the next entry to the Cannonball Jazz Library. Essential listening as Bechet was the only early jazz stylist who could hold a candle to the talent of Louis Armstrong. Clicking the album cover will take you to the library.

Here's a short video on the Bechet's early career. Some of the stuff regarding the arrest in Paris is probably anecdotal at best but it gives a glimpse into his genius.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Coleman Hawkins, "Body & Soul" & The Birth Of Bebop

And so to a huge turning point in the history of jazz, essentially the movement away from the big band swing sound to the more sculptural rhythms of bebop. Before going forward I wish to highlight that I have still so much to learn in terms of the major players and the dynamics of the swing jazz era. However the reason for the major step forward at this time is to acknowledge that I have spoken in some posts (the last one being a prime example) about many of the big band musicians making the transition from swing to bebop, yet if I am to be honest I really don't know what bebop really is! Sure, I can tell the sonic difference between Count Basie's One O'Clock Jump and Charlie Parker's Ornithology, yet I never really understood the jazz connection. Like most forms of music, bebop didn't just appear from nowhere. There is a lineage from the very earliest forms of jazz through to this very complex form of music. The music was also born from the social situation of the time. One man who straddled the genres and indeed facilitated the transition was tenor saxophonist, Coleman Hawkins.

Jazz = saxophone. A simple equation, yet one not possible without the influence of Coleman Hawkins. From its invention in the 1840's to the early 20th century, the saxophone never really found a proper home. Some early recordings of jazz featured the instrument but in a very vaudevillian, comedic fashion. If they needed the sound of a horse on a record they called in the sax player. Coleman Hawkins was to change all that. His career spanned from the early 20's right through to the 1960's, yet the one thing that was to define him was his constant search for musical innovation. Like all musicians in the 1920's he was heavily (heavily!) influenced by improvisational style of Louis Armstrong, who he had first hand experience playing with in the Fletcher Henderson orchestra.

His recordings from the 20's through the whole of the 1930's and 1940's were prodigious (so much so that I have been unable to locate any sort of reliable discography) and over time he developed his own earthy, bluesy sound which was extremely distinctive. He remained with Henderson's orchestra right through to 1934 when he decided upon making a trip to Europe, just as the Swing craze was taking hold of America. He was to remain there for the guts of five years, the highlight probably being the recordings he made with the Quintette du Hot Club de France, featuring Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli and Benny Carter. Upon his return in 1939 he appeared to be very disappointed at the lack of musical progress being made by most of his contemporaries. It was at this time that he recorded Body and Soul, one of the most important three minutes in jazz history.

Body and Soul

Body and Soul is pretty much a jazz standard. Written in 1930 it was to eventually become recorded by many, many artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday. Village Voice critic Gary Giddins reckons there are close to 3000+ versions. To understand what Coleman Hawkins did with the tune I recommend listening to an earlier version. Here's Benny Goodman's version with Teddy Wilson on piano and the legendary drummer, Gene Krupa in 1935.

It's a fantastic rendition of the song with Goodman's clarinet coming across as clean as a whistle. However, they never stray too far from the melody of the original tune. Hawkins' approach was to prove to be both revolutionary and evolutionary. Apart from the opening bars the tune was pure improvisation, his saxophone teasing with the base notes but effortlessly moving around them.

Journalist Will Friedwald explains it beautifully: "Hawkins and the tune are friendly for about two bars, getting along marvelously, before they unexpectedly part company. Hawk may be thinking about the tune here and there, maybe even stealing a glimpse at it, but he never looks straight at it"

It was recorded in one take after an all night gig, in October 1939, at a Manhattan bar called Kelly's Stables with no rehearsal and no charts. Taking a swig of cognac he asked Gene Rogers, the pianist to strike up the initial chords..

"He's playing the wrong notes!" "Where's the melody?". These were the initial responses to Hawk's recording. However as the world was about to lurch into another war that was to bring a massive social upheaval, so too the world of jazz was turned on its head. The song was to be a massive hit on jukeboxes right through to the 1950's. True to his improvisational and innovative beliefs, Hawkins never played the song the same way again after this session. Yet the idea of converting an old Tin Pan Alley tune into a more free-spirited and creative song was to prove hugely influential as the 30's became the 40's and bebop was to become the jazz drug of choice...

To round off, check out another fantastic Coleman Hawkins tune from 1944, the time when most bebop records were first beginning to be recorded. Woody'n You (featuring a sublime Dizzy Gillespie solo) clearly demonstrates how much the music had shifted from the previous decade.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Benny Carter

"The problem of expressing the contributions that Benny Carter has made to popular music is so tremendous it completely fazes me, so extraordinary a musician is he."

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie are names that roll off the tongue when it comes to naming famous jazz musicians. These were names that were known to me even before I started this blog and the careers of whom I have happily learned a lot more about. There is one name missing however. A name that would, perhaps, only roll off the tongue of jazz afficianados. A man whose career spanned over SEVEN decades, from the end of the 1920’s right through to the end of the 20th century. A man responsible for bringing swing jazz to the forefront in the mid 30’s. A man who was playing bebop before the term was even invented. A man who kick-started the careers of JJ Johnson, Max Roach and the aforementioned legend Miles Davis. Benny Carter is surely someone who deserves our attention and awareness.

A native New Yorker, Carter was heavily influenced by the trumpet sounds of Bubber Miley and the C-Melody sax of Frank Trumbauer. At a very early age he was well aquainted with the hottest Harlem night spots and could claim to have jammed with Sidney Bechet, Earl Hines, and James P Johnson, to name a few. By the early 30’s he was a well-known arranger and the leader of his own orchestra. As well as being a proficient trumpet player, he was one of the most prominent alto saxophonist of the time. Although he was never to have the same prominence as Ellington’s or Basie’s orchestras, the music he produced with an all-star crew in 1933 remains one of the high water marks of pre-swing jazz recordings. Check out Bugle Call Rag. Recorded with English band leader Spike Hughes in New York that year, this is a song years ahead of its time. Starting off with a very up-tempo riff arrangement involving all the musicians, the song evolves with each of the musicians letting loose with fantastic solos from Coleman Hawkins and trombonist Dickie Wells.

The ravages of the Great Depression however led to the breakup of his orchestra and led Carter to leave for Europe where he stayed for the next three years. His time was not misspent however. He became involved with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli’s Quintette du Hot club de France making some seminal recordings in Paris in early 1937. I will undoubtedly write about these in more detail at a future date, but for now have a listen to “Honeysuckle Rose”. This is a fantastic recording with Carter and an inspired Coleman Hawkins laying down the blueprint for the next twenty years of jazz.

After Europe he returned to the States, settling in California for the rest of his career. Honeysuckle Rose and many other famous recordings were to be revisited in 1961 with the album, Further Definitions, widely regarded as one of the finest albums in jazz history.

To finish up, here is the man himself playing at a Tokyo jazz club in 1997. A mere 90 years old in the video, he still demonstrates that he has the chops to keep up with some excellent younger musicians. A fantastic piece of improvising around the old tune, Honeysuckle Rose.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Chick Webb: "The Daddy Of Them All"

Rock 'n' roll is really swing with a modern name. It began on the levees and plantations, took in folk songs, and features blues and rhythm. It's the rhythm that gets to the kids - they're starved of music they can dance to, after all those years of crooners.

Legendary disc jockey Alan Freed speaking to NME - February 1956

As a guitarist who has been fortunate enough to play live music with some very talented musicians I feel I am in a position to say that the drums, and good drummers, kick ass. Playing a guitar solo knowing that your bottom is being held up (so to speak) by the combination of solid bass and snare drums accompanied by a driving ride cymbal is very comforting. And so it is with great interest that I approach the work of Chick Webb, "the daddy of them all!"

The quote comes from none other than the legendary Buddy Rich, who along with Gene Krupa formed the sum total of my knowledge of jazz drummers, prior to beginning this blog. However it was Webb who was to prove to be one of the catalysts in promoting the drums as a bona fide jazz instrument.

There were of course other jazz drummers prior to Chick Webb, perhaps most notably Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton, who both played with Joe Oliver and Louis Armstrong in the 1920's. However due to the primitive recording techniques of the time their true mastery could not be heard and the rhythm section of the Hot Five and Seven recordings consisted of rudimentary cymbals and blocks. Advancements in recording technology in the 1930's would allow artists like Chick Webb and Jo Jones to be heard, even down to faint brush strokes.

We are however talking about the early 1930's! The Great Depression was raging and recording jazz artists was not a lucrative business. As such, Chick Webb's recorded output remains slim. What is available is remarkable and you can see how he paved the way for the likes of Krupa, Rich and Max Roach to follow him. He was also a renowned band leader and his reputation at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York was second to none. Friendly "cutting contests" were frequent, where a battle of the bands style scenario saw Chick Webb's band up against the like of The Count Basie Orchestra and Benny Goodman's Orchestra. Webb's band always won. He was also the person who saw the full potential of a young Ella Fitzgerald, who became the singer of the band post 1935 and who was to give them their first hits. Unfortunately, he was to die young as a result of the spinal tuberculosis that he had contracted at a young age, and would not live to see out the decade.

Some of the stuff recorded by Chick Webb and his orchestra is superb. The music is remarkably tight with more than a hint of what was to come out of the rock n roll era twenty years later. (In fact I was struck by the lyrics in the song "Rock It For Me", where Fitzgerald sings "Won't you satisfy my soul with the rock n roll". ) Check out "Harlem Congo". Played at breakneck speed but with a fluid yet mesmeric solo from Webb towards the end. (Taft Jordan's trumpet solo also practically jumps out of the record). Webb's solo never takes away from the song at any time and cements the drums as a legitimate jazz instrument.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Benny Goodman

And so onto Benny Goodman, whom Time magazine saw fit to call "The King of Swing" in 1937. As as per usual with my posts I had better get my preconceptions and ignorance out of the way first!

I had long associated Benny Goodman with the music of Glenn Miller and the kind of style associated with the massive hit "In The Mood". However it has long been debated that Miller's style of music was too commercial and overly practiced to be considered part of the hot jazz/improvisational lineage. Here's a quote from a Time magazine article written in 1942 entitled "Jive for Epicures" -

"U.S jive epicures consider the jazz played by such famous name bands as Tommy Dorsey's or Glenn Miller's a low, commercial product. Their heroes are unsung swingsters who improvise nightly for a favored few in hotspots like Chicago's College Inn, Manhattan Nick's. Their treasured classics are discs made in the '20s by such Chicago immortals as the late Leon ("Bix") Beiderbecke and King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band."

(As an aside it's also interesting to note from the article that the jazz afficionados in 1942 sat rapt in their seats as they considered it "sacrilege" to dance. This is a clear demonstration that jazz had reached a fundamental turning point at this time - from a musical form that encouraged dancing to the more, perhaps snobbish point of view that it was an art form that required serious listening. The definition of jazz even at this stage was becoming extremely blurred)

Goodman's popularity came about at a time when improvisational jazz was out of favour. He had been around the scene since the mid 20's as a session musician alongside his contemporaries Tommy Dorsey and the aforementioned Glenn Miller. His band demoed for a national radio show, NBC's "Let's Dance", a show that showcased a variety of musical styles.

As the Let's Dance show was weekly, Goodman was persuaded by his agent John Hammond to buy a load of "hot" jazz arrangements from Fletcher Henderson. The Goodman Orchestra's style developed and could be compared with the jazz sounds coming out of Kansas City at the time - big band swing with room for musical improvisation. Due to his time-slot on the show of 12.30am eastern, not many people on the East Coast heard Goodman's orchestra. However, the time difference meant that a lot of ears were tuning in in California and this was to prove instrumental in his career.

Let's Dance was cancelled midway through 1935 and Goodman was forced to take the band on the road. Their kind of music was not going down successfully with many audiences as they bused across the country. As the tour bombed they became progressively more broke and very dispirited as they reached California by mid summer. They had landed a three week gig at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Probably to ensure that they were able to see out the three weeks they began their first engagement by playing cautiously - stock pop tunes which to their surprise met with a very lukewarm response from the audience. As they were the ones tuning in to the Let's Dance show they were expecting the same music. It's widely regarded that it was Gene Krupa, Goodman's extraordinary drummer, who said to him - "if we're gonna die, let's die playing our own thing". The result caused mass hysteria and so it was that the events at the Palomar have been described as the moment when the Swing Era really took off.

Goodman's career spanned the next five decades. Many have remarked on his personality and temperament - mainly in a negative sense. To me this is perhaps not surprising given the times he was living in trying to maintain a large and expensive orchestra. He is widely regarded as being colour blind in terms of the musicians he chose. His trio and quartet work with Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson were the first examples of a fully open and integrated band. He was probably very demanding of his musicians but this appears to be the trait required of a successful big band leader.

To my ear his music can come across in a wide spectrum - from dated swing era tunes to absolutely extraordinary stuff. His clarinet style is very precise but soulful (though he doesn't push the envelope like Bechet). He had a plethora of hits from 1935 to the beginning of World War II and I have chosen one of my favourites to demonstrate his sound. This is "Bugle Call Rag"( originally recorded by The New Orleans Rhythm Kings in 1922). Goodman's orchestra takes a New Orleans style standard and records it with sleek big band precision.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Sidney Bechet, Tommy Ladnier & The New Orleans Feetwarmers

Before delving back into the Swing Era, I’d like to take a look at some of the work of one of jazz’s most important figures - Sidney Bechet. Bechet was one of the people that I highlighted somewhere around the beginning of this blog, a pivotal figure in bringing the original New Orleans sound to the industrial cities in the north. He was, at the time, the only guy who could hold a candle to the solos and improvisations of Louis Armstrong in the 1920’s. When I spoke of him last he had finished up some recordings with Clarence Williams (including some great stuff with Armstrong) and had taken to the road in Europe never to set foot into the recording studio for the rest of the decade. Click the link above for a refresher.

The 1930’s were, however, to prove lean times for Bechet. He hooked up with The Noble Sissle Orchestra on his travels, playing with them through Europe and later in the States. The songs he played on with that band are not strictly jazz, they were more in keeping with the sweet pop tunes of the time. However the work provided a steady enough pay packet for him during the difficult times of the Great Depression.

More notably for us was the collaboration with his friend and fellow New Orleanian, Tommy Ladnier, in forming The New Orleans Feet Warmers. Together they produced an absolutely scintillating set of tunes during a recorded session in 1932.

Sidney Bechet:

Tommy Ladnier:

Here is the highlight of those sessions – “Shag”.

Raucus, freewheeling, uninhibited and showcasing the spectacular improvisational talents of Sidney Bechet, this has to be one of the most important songs in jazz history. It is obviously rooted in the New Orleans and Chicago styles that each of the band members would have all been very familiar with. But the song clearly utilises the new jazz rhythm section that was coming out of Kansas City (for example, a piano solo recorded in the 1920's would have had to be recorded in isolation, here the solo is augmented with bass and drums). Also prevelant is Wilson Myers' superb scat singing, highlighting the influence Louis Armstrong was having over practically all vocal styles post the Hot 5 & 7 recordings. The width of Bechet’s vibrato on the soprano sax is truly extraordinary. His solos mercilessly soar in, out, above and over the track. Check it out. True jazz.

Unfortunately the band was to be shortlived as they weren't received well commercially. Ladnier and Bechet turned their hand at opening a tailor shop in Harlem. Unsurprisingly it wasn't a success (perhaps due to the proprieters' propensity to indulge in all night jam sessions..)

Unfortunately the band was to be shortlived as they weren't received well commercially. Ladnier and Bechet turned their hand to opening a tailor shop in Harlem. Unsurprisingly it wasn't a success (perhaps due to the proprieters' propensity to indulge in all night jam sessions..).