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.