Wednesday, April 16, 2014

King Porter Stomp (begun)

(I'm still trying to figure out what this blog should be; is it for listeners, dancers or musicians?  How long and detailed should the posts be?  What can I cover competently?  The posts so far have been kind of preliminary, but I think I should get into some history.  These history posts may not bring anything new to the world of jazz scholarship, but I hope they will be interesting to dancers and general readers.  I hope they will help people grasp the evolution of the music and to make sense of what they hear.)

Where does one start with the history of jazz?  Probably in New Orleans, although you could go further back and look for the roots elsewhere.  I think that Jelly Roll Morton is a great person to start with, especially since he claimed that he personally invented jazz (a claim that has been scoffed at by eveyone who has ever heard it).  Morton was a piano player whose career started in his home town of New orleans.  He then travelled all over America, mostly playing solo piano and composing.  He did record some records with a band, and these show him to be an inventive and important arranger.  Finally, very close to the end of his life, he was interviewed extensively by Alan Lomax.  These interviews provide us with a great deal of insight into the man, the early evolution of jazz, and the history of New Orleans, although one must not believe everything that Morton says.

In this post, I want to talk specifically about how one of Jelly Roll's compositions winds its way through the history of jazz.  It's interesting in terms of the song, and also as an example of the evolution of jazz.  It's also, in my opinion, a song that every Lindy hopper should know.  The song is "King Porter Stomp," which Morton claimed to have written in 1905.  He explained that he did not publish the piece for many years because he would have made so little money by publishing it.  It was more valuable to him as "private material," a piece he could use in his own performances.  This kind of thinking was not uncommon in the early days of jazz.  Many musicians were afraid that if they recorded or published their music, other players would steal their ideas and their livelihood.  It was not yet clear that recordings could promote one's career to a degree that would make up for this kind of theft of ideas.  Additionally, recordings did not result in royalty payments.  One was paid to make the recording, and that was all.

King Porter Stomp, Jelly Roll Morton, 1923

Jelly Roll finally did publish King Porter stomp in 1923.  At this time, he also recorded two versions: a solo piano version, and a duo with King Oliver (1924), one of the most famous trumpet players of the day.  The duo recording is less interesting than one might expect from these two musicians.  This is probably because it was meant as a demonstration of what was contained in the sheet music.  This shows how, in 1924, recordings were still not important products of their own.  They were made to sell more of the real products-- in this case, sheet music, in other cases, furniture in the form of record and phonograph cabinets.

King Porter Stomp, Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver, 1924

After publication, a number of bands recorded versions of the King Porter Stomp.  There were seven groups (other than Morton) who recorded the song in 1924 and 1925.  One was Fletcher Henderson's band, in 1925.  This recording was rejected by the record company and was never issued.  King Porter then fell out of fashion, and might have been forgotten, except that Henderson made another recording in 1928.  This one met with more success, and Henderson made additional recordings of the song in 1932 and 1933.

What we hear in these recordings is very revealing.  In Jelly Roll Morton's 1938 interviews with Alan Lomax, Morton explains:

"Of course, I’ll tell you the fact about it, I don’t know what the name stomp mean, myself. It really wasn’t any meaning, only that people would stamp their feet, and I decided that the name stomp would be fitted for it.

Of course, this tune . . . I was inspired by the name from a very dear friend of mine, and a marvellous pianist, now in the cold, cold ground — a gentleman from Florida, an educated gentleman with a wonderful musical education, far much better than mine. Er, this gentleman’s name was Mr. King — Porter King."

"This gentleman was named Porter King, as I before stated. And, of course, he seemed to have a kind of a yen for my style of playin’, although we had two diffferent styles of playin’. And, of course, he particularly liked this type of number that I was playin’, and that was the reason that I named it after him — but not Porter King. I changed the name backwards and named it 'King Porter Stomp.'

This tune become to be the outstanding favorite of every great hot band throughout the world that had the accomplishments and qualifications of playin’ it. And until today, this tune has been the cause of many great bands to come to fame. It has caused the outstanding tunes today to, er, to use the backgrounds that belong to 'King Porter' in order to make great tunes of themselves."

Morton then plays the song on piano, but it is a version quite different from the way he played it in 1923.  The 1923 version is not quite ragtime-- it has moved beyond ragtime in important ways-- but it still sounds a lot like ragtime.  It is a kind of jazz, but it does not swing like later jazz.  By 1938, Morton is playing the piece with a different kind of swing, and he is emphasizing riffs within the piece which previously were only suggested.  This must be the influence of Fletcher Henderson.

King Porter Stomp, Jelly Roll Morton, 1938:

It is unknown why Henderson's band kept revisiting the song, or how often they played it in performances, but it apparently was an important part of their repertoire.  It has also been shown that Henderson's band probably did not have a written arrangement for the song, playing it instead from memory as a "head" arrangement.  This must have allowed the song to evolve and take on the new ideas which were beginning to lead to a new kind of jazz: swing.  The evolution of this song in Henderson's recordings is a nearly perfect example of how jazz evolved from the music heard in New Orleans in the teens to the music heard in New York in the thirties.  Add the 1923 version to the picture, and we can also see the ragtime roots of it all.

Importantly, Henderson's arrangement added a distinctive introduction, which has remained present in most versions of the song since that time.  Though it cannot be confirmed, there is good reason to believe that this introduction was a creation of Henderson's trumpet star at the time of the 1925 recording: Louis Armstrong.  We can first hear this introduction in the 1928 recording.

King Porter Stomp, Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, 1928

King Porter Stomp underwent two important changes when it was played by the Henderson band: The structure was simplified, and riffs were emphasized.  These riffs created a perfect environment for a hot soloist, and allowed the piece to take on a powerfully swinging sound.  In the 1932 and 1933 recordings we hear the riffs becoming more and more prominent, and the piece begins to swing in a new way.  The interplay between sections as they play riffs anticipates the sound of later swing-era bands.

New King Porter Stomp, Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, 1932

Henderson's band was not the end of the story, though.  The Henderson band fell on hard times and disbanded.  At the same time, Benny Goodman found the opportunity to lead his own band.  What he lacked was arrangements, and he hired Henderson as an arranger.  The initial success of the Goodman band had a lot to do with the arrangements that came to him from Henderson's band, and King Porter Stomp was the first of these.  It is said that the swing era started with Goodman's concert at the Palomar ballroom, and it could equally well be said that it started with Goodman's version of King Porter Stomp, which was a part of that performance.

The main difference in the performances by the Goodman band was that the Henderson arrangement was, finally, written down.  This eliminated a kind of disunity that existed in the Henderson recordings, where various players had different ideas about how the song should be played, and it fixed the previously shifting form of the song.  Oddly, the 1935 version recorded by Goodman sounds like a middle ground between the early and late Henderson versions.  The rippling riffs of the 1932 and 1933 versions are there, but they are de-emphasized.  Additionally, the tempo is slower, and the feel is a bit more like the 1928 recording.

(The 1935 performance also contains one of my favorite trumpet solos, from Bunny Berigan.  Berigan will be a subject later...)

King Porter remained a trademark piece for the Goodman band right up until Goodman's last performance in 1986.  Its importance in the swing era cannot be overstated, and, as Morton said, it was the basis of my other great songs, which used the chords from King Porter in what became known as the "stomp progression," and which made "great tunes of themselves."

King Porter Stomp, Benny Goodman Orchestra, 1935

Lost Chords, Richard Sudhalter
The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller

1 comment:

  1. A most excellent article. I read it all and listened carefully to each audio clip and got a lot of good schooling. I particularly liked Morton's 1938 solo piano version of the song for the ever-changing syncopated accents of his foot stomps (how does he get them to 'clack' like that?) and the sparkling inventiveness of his riffs in this recording.

    The band arrangements streamline and focus the rhythm for dancing and riffing and blast the tune off into another dimension. Powerful stuff!