Monday, 24 November 2014

Duke Ellington's Sidemen

Cootie Williams



Cootie Williams was the guy who had the dubious honour of replacing Bubber Miley in the late 20's. However he was no newcomer having earned his chops by playing with such luminaries as James P Johnson, Chick Webb and Fletcher Henderson. Williams continued the "jungle" style playing that Miley and the late 1920's were renowned for. He was to become one of the most sought after trumpet players in the following two decades recording with Ellington in the 1930's and also leading his own sessions. He sensationally left Ellington's orchestra to join up with Benny Goodman and established himself in the latter's sextet.

He became a bandleader in the 1940's, no mean feat considering the logistics and costs involved especially as swing was on the wane. Yet he managed to employ musicians who would become some of the most legendary names in jazz - Eddie Vinson, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Bud Powell and even Charlie Parker. It was around this time that he co-authored Round Midnight with an up-and-coming Thelonious Monk. The 1950's were not kind to Williams professionally but he did return to Ellington's orchestra in 1962 where he remained until Ellington's death.

Williams was an exceptional musician and trumpeter. He was renowned for his exquisite use of the plunger mute and phasing. Yet he could sound extraordinarily bluesy and soulful as well. Check out "Concerto For Cootie" a song that exemplifies all his attributes.

Concerto for Cootie - Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestr by Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra;Cootie Williams on Grooveshark


Jimmy Blanton



Any bass player who takes up a solo in a jazz band today has to thank Jimmy Blanton. While it was Walter Page who put the walk into the Basie rhythm it was Blanton (and his contemporary, Slam Stewart) who put the flair. Blanton employed the use of "pizzicato", a very common technique in today's jazz world but positively revolutionary when Blanton joined Ellington's orchestra in 1939, just shortly before Ben Webster. Many regard the Blanton-Webster period of Ellington's career as a particular golden age.

His career was to be appallingly short as he was to contract tuberculosis and pass away in 1942. His legacy was in his becoming known as "The Godfather Of Bebop" yet one can only wonder how his career would have been shaped in happier circumstances.

Have a listen to Pitter Panther Patter and see exactly what I mean.

Pitter Panther Patter by Duke Ellington on Grooveshark

Rex Stewart




Cornet player Rex Stewart had been around the jazz scene for quite a while before joining Ellington's orchestra in 1934. He was probably best known for his work with Elmer Snowden and in the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in the mid 20's. He was to feature prominently in his eleven year stint with Ellington including writing the sublime Morning Glory. 

Morning Glory by Duke Ellington on Grooveshark

Johnny Hodges



Probably one of the most famous names in jazz to come from Ellington's orchestra. When it came to alto saxophone there were few better. Ellington played up his smooth vibrato-heavy tone in the compositions that he wrote for Hodges. (No surprise in the fact that he was a massive fan of Bechet). He joined the band in the late 1920's and was its leading soloist by the mid 1930's. He could play the blues with the best of them but perhaps it was the ballads that Ellington wrote for him that would become Hodges bread and butter in his later career. (Check out Warm Valley from 1940 as case in point). He left Ellington's big band in 1951 to pursue a solo career and made some wonderful recordings with Norman Granz. He eventually returned to the orchestra in the mid 50's and remained there until his death in 1970.

Warm Valley by Johnny Hodges on Grooveshark

Harry Carney



Harry Carney was more than just the baritone saxophonist of the Duke Ellington Orchestra (although he was one of the earliest exponents of the instrument). He was its longest serving member joining as a 17 year old in 1927 right through to Ellington's death in 1974. He was also a friend and confidante to the Duke with the two of them riding to shows in Carney's Imperial car. These moments provided the relaxed ambience for Ellington to compose some of his most memorable songs. He was a master of the clarinet but it was with the rather unwieldy baritone that he was to make his name. He was one of the first musicians to employ the technique of circular breathing which enabled him to hold long indefinite notes to embellish his solos. 

Here's Sepia Panorama from the Blanton - Webster era which is a great example of Ellington's sound at this time and showcases Carney, Ellington and Blanton. 

Sepia Panorama by Duke Ellington on Grooveshark

Sonny Greer



Sonny Greet first met Duke Ellington as far back as 1919 and was his first drummer when he began The Washingtonians in 1924. He was to remain in the band for almost 30 years. So when you're listening to the drums on any Ellington classic from the 20's, 30's or 40's, you're listening to Sonny Greer.

Ellington wrote of Greer in his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, ''When he heard a ping, he responded with the most apropos pong. Any tune he was backing up had the benefit of rhythmic ornamentation that was sometimes unbelievable. And he used to look like a high priest or a king on a throne, 'way up above everybody, with all his gold accessories around him, all there was room for on the stand!''

Not only was he the drummer in those difficult early days but he was also its source of income due to his prowess on the pool table. He provided the "eating and walking around money" that they needed until they began to hit the big time.


Barney Bigard



Bigard was the New Orleans connection in Ellington's orchestra. He learned his trade at the feet of Lorenzo Tio and after moving to Chicago he played tenor saxophone with some heavy hitters in the mid 20's including Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Johnny Dodds and Jelly Roll Morton before switching to clarinet. From the time he joined Ellington in 1927 to his leaving in 1942 he established himself as one of the finest exponents of the instrument. He also had a hand in co-writing one of Ellington's most famous pieces, Mood Indigo. 

Mood Indigo [1930] by The Jungle Band on Grooveshark

Tricky Sam Nanton



Along with Bubber Miley in the 1920's, Sam Nanton was the man that gave the Ellington Orchestra its dirty, growly edge that set it apart from the early competition. While King Oliver and Miley gave the musical world the wa-wa, Nanton gave us the ya-ya, an effect that made his instrument sound uncannily like a human voice. While such effects could prove gimmicky in the wrong hands this was never the case with Nanton who possessed the most powerful technique and proficiency.

Check him out on one of Ellington's finest songs from the late 1920´s, Black And Tan Fantasy

Black And Tan Fantasy by Duke Ellington on Grooveshark

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Billie Holiday

Behind me, Billie was on her last song. I picked up the refrain, humming a few bars. Her voice sounded different to me now. Beneath the layers of hurt, beneath the ragged laughter, I heard a willingness to endure. Endure- and make music that wasn't there before. Barack Obama


Perhaps the greatest jazz vocalist of all time.(Note that I didn't even use the word "female".) Such is Billie Holiday's stature in the world of jazz. Her voice was unmistakeable and her life was remarkably sad and event-filled. In today's world of here-today-gone-later-today talent, it's unlikely that we'll see her like again. She was a pioneer, a one-off.

My first exposure to Billie Holiday's music was probably through a quite memorable car advertisement than ran back in the early 90s. So distinctive was her voice that I can still conjure up the advertisement in question. (Some kudos then to the ad men but unfortunately for them I couldn't remember the brand!) One can only imagine the impact her voice had on ears of the listeners who first heard her back in the 1930s.. 

Her early life was, to say the least, chaotic and full of serious adversity. After a few years trying her luck in various clubs in New York in the late 20s and early 30s she was picked up by John Hammond and began her recording career with Benny Goodman. Her first recordings were fairly unremarkable but she eventually began to find her own distinct style and phrasing, the like of which had not been heard before. Goodman himself was to remark, "she was the first girl singer I'd come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius". Her first real hit was the song What A Little Moonlight Can Do recorded with Teddy Wilson's Orchestra. With accompaniment by Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, Cozy Cole and Goodman it is real gem. 


It was at this time that she began her musical association with Lester Young who was to give her her lasting moniker "Lady Day". (Not to be outdone she called him "Prez".). This Year's Kisses is a fantastic example of the type of recordings the two were to make together at the end of the 30s. 



It was around this time that she was to record the haunting track Strange Fruit. Originally written as a poem by Abel Meeropol, it was a favourite at the integrated nightclub, Cafe Society in New York. A song about southern lynchings it is an ominously dark song that perfectly suited Holiday´s delivery.


Her star continued to ascend in the 1940's with a number of instantly recognisable hits. However her life was taking the opposite turn. She had frequent run-ins with the law and her drug habit was spiralling out of control. As was her voice. Some find her last recordings to be remarkably inferior to her earlier work. Others can find a lot of  soul and heartfelt emotion in her scratchy delivery. Her final album Lady In Satin, released in 1957, divides such opinon and is a controversial work. 

One of her most famous appearances was in the CBS special The Sound Of Jazz from 1957. Here is a simply stunning performance of Fine And Mellow with accompaniment from none other than Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster; Gerry Mulligan, Vic Dickenson, Roy Eldridge and of course Lester Young. (Lester is the one sitting during this performance but he stands to give his solo. The way that Holiday looks at him would melt the the stoniest of hearts. All the more poignant as both were to pass away within two years of the recording.)

Monday, 31 March 2014

Charlie Christian

"Who the hell wants to hear an electric guitar player?"
Benny Goodman

This quote came from the 1930´s when John Hammond suggested to Goodman that he give an audition to Charlie Christian. It´s a stark reminder that the instrument, which was to become synonomous with popular music in the latter half of the twentieth century, was held in such little regard by the man who defined popular music in the 1930´s having been dubbed "The King Of Swing". Yet Christian auditioned successfully and became an integral part of Goodman´s orchestra. In time, he was to be crowned one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time.



The first time I listened to Charlie Christian was when I was about 14 years old. Having been a huge fan of Chuck Berry my interest was piqued when he was asked about his musical influences. He proceeded to name check T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian. As I was primarily interested in learning rock and blues I ate up T-Bone´s music and licks voraciously (forgive the pun). Charlie Christian was a tougher nut to crack though. I managed to get my hands on the album "The Genius Of The Electric Guitar" from my local library. I´ll be honest and say that my 14 year old self was a little disappointed. The majority of the tracks were three minute songs from the Benny Goodman Sextet recordings in which Christian was given a limited time to show his abilities. Too many clarinets and trumpets for me at that time!

Now older and perhaps a little wiser I can approach Charlie Christian´s music within a broader context. He was a pivotal figure in the world of jazz being one of the musicians who straddled the two worlds of swing and bebop. By day he was recording with Benny Goodman and established swing artists like Cootie Williams and Lionel Hampton. By night he immersed himself in the world of after-hours jam sessions in Harlem at places like Minton´s Playhouse. He wasn´t the first jazz guitarist to play the electric guitar but, being heavily influenced by the sound of Lester Young´s saxophone, he was the first to give it its distinctive voice that was to prevail in practically every jazz record that employed a guitar for the next thirty years.

All of this is even more remarkable when you consider the brevity of his career. He was born in Texas in 1916 and by the early thirties he was establishing a name for himself on the Oklahoma circuit (even striking up a friendship with previously mentioned T-Bone Walker). He acquired his first electric guitar around 1937 (a Gibson ES-150) and came to the notice of producer and promoter, John Hammond, who also happened to be Benny Goodman´s brother-in-law. After a nervy audition Christian´s star soared over the next couple of years.

Check out Solo Flight as an example of Christian´s work with Goodman. He wanted his guitar to sound more like a horn, hence the reason that he doesn´t really sound like Django Reinhardt or Eddie Lang, more like his hero Lester Young.

Solo Flight by Charlie Christian on Grooveshark

But as the world was hurtling toward its second global conflict, jazz was to experience an important musical schism. Christian was part of a group of musicians that were experimenting with a looser more dynamic style that was to become bebop. There are some great recordings that demonstrate this dating back as far as 1939 when he was touring with Goodman (Blues In B and Waiting For Benny are great examples). Yet it is the amateur recordings made when Christian was jamming at the after-hours clubs in Harlem that really show the direction of the music. Jerry Newman, a student from Columbia University and a Benny Goodman nut, managed to bring a recorder into Minton´s Playhouse in 1941 and captured a free wheeling Charlie Christian in full flow. Topsy was one of the results. (Check out Kenny Clarke´s sublime bebop drumming as well)

Swing To Bop (Topsy) by Charlie Christian on Grooveshark

Yet less than one year later Charlie would sadly have succumbed to tuberculosis. The musical baton was to be picked up by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. Any guitar player to emerge post 1941 would be influenced by him. This also included guitarists outside of the jazz sphere including BB King, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix and beyond.










Sunday, 26 January 2014

Django Reinhardt

 "By far the most astonishing guitar player ever has got to be Django Reinhardt. I'm sort of a newcomer to his work, although I was always aware of him. Django was quite superhuman. There's nothing normal about him, as a person or a player." Jeff Beck

There comes a time when every learner of the guitar makes a decision, consciously or not, to continue to pursue an interest in the instrument or put it down. The former will push themselves to learn more chords and will endeavour to learn some basic lead licks. My interest, like I am sure of many other guitarists, also led me to buy guitar magazines and to receive some nice hardback books as Christmas presents. Any of these books that chronicled the history of the guitar or its major players would include all the usual suspects. The early chapters would inevitably feature two of the early pioneers of lead guitar - Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. As a young teenager fairly uninterested in jazz I probably would have skipped these over and focused on the biographies and discographies of my early guitar heroes who were all famous post 1956 rock n roll. Therefore like Jeff Beck and I´m sure many others, I was always aware of Django Reinhardt. Yet it is only now that I am sitting down and really listening to his music with a taste for the jazz and social history that surrounds this fascinating character. I guess I´m a sort of a newcomer as well. 

Django was the first big European jazz star. He was born in a gypsy caravan in Belgium but spent most of his life living in France hence some confusion as to his nationality. He began as a banjo player and was beginning to earn a name for himself in the mid to late 1920´s. The turning point in his life occurred in 1928 when he became very badly injured in a fire at his caravan home. His injuries were severe enough for one doctor to suggest amputating a leg. Thankfully Reinhardt refused. His recuperation proved to be long and many thought that the injuries received to his left hand would mean the end of his musical career. A bedridden Django would eventually develop a new technique that involved him predominantly using his first and middle fingers only.



In the early 30´s he met St├ęphane Grapelli and the two would go on to form the Quintette du Hot Club de France, named after the organisation that promoted jazz in France. Their music was clearly influenced by that of Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti yet Django´s musicianship takes the music to the next logical step especially given the influence that swing music was having on the world by 1935. The early recordings by the group are astounding. Any track would exemplify Django´s sound but for me Dinah is a particular favourite. The trills and runs are mindblowing. 

Dinah by Django Reinhardt on Grooveshark

Check out the stop-time fills and Van Halen-esque alternate picking in this version of Tiger Rag. (Django was basically the original shredder!)

Tiger Rag by Django Reinhardt on Grooveshark

He was in England when war was declared on Nazi Germany. Yet while Grappelli opted to remain Django, somewhat inexplicably and without warning, returned to Paris. Despite the Nazi´s public aversion to jazz and attitude to the gypsy populace, Django continued to play and to develop his style. After the war he embarked on a tour of the United States as a special guest soloist with The Duke Ellington Orchestra. He was a massive hit with the audiences but his lack of ability to communicate in English and his undoubted restlessness saw him back in France in 1947. He experimented with electric guitar and continued to record right up to his untimely death in 1953. His dalliances with the electric guitar and bebop influences have somewhat divided opinion, perhaps a precursor to what would happen to Bob Dylan twenty years later. Personally I can find no fault with any of Django´s later recordings. As is often the case of artists who refuse to sit still artistically he fell foul of those who did not want him to change. For me a track like Fleche D'or from 1952 blows the naysayers out of the water. It's so far ahead of its time and Django sounds great. 

Fleche d'Or by Django Reinhardt on Grooveshark