Friday, June 20, 2014

Bennie in the Band

Note: if you run out of time or patience, skip to the end.  The last one is really special!

I don't remember what made me think of it, but I recently searched through my copy of Brian Rust's discography to find songs on which Benny Goodman played.  I ignored songs where one would expect to find him; those with his own bands, with Lionel Hampton, with Teddy Wilson... I knew there were a lot of songs he recorded with lesser-known groups, and that is what I was curious about.

What I found is a lot.  I don't own even half of the songs that I found, and many of them are not on Youtube either.  The ones I can't find sound so intriguing!  Like this:
I don't know if this recording was ever released.

Or this:
What a lineup!

Anyway, for your listening pleasure, ten songs with Benny Goodman that I could find on youtube:

After You've Gone: Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang and their All-star Orchestra, 1931
(Charlie Teagarden trumpet, Jack Teagarden trombone/vocals, Benny Goodman clarinet, Joe Venuti violin, Frank Signorelli piano, Eddie Lang guitar, Ward Lay string bass, Neil Marshall drums)

Bag O' Blues, Jack Pettis and his Orchestra, 1929
(Bill Moore and Donald Bryan tumpet, Jack Teagarden trombone, Benny Goodman clarinet/alto sax, Jack Pettis C-melody saxophone, Dick McDonough banjo/guitar, Merill Klein tuba, Dillon Ober drums) 

Charlie's Home, Adrian Rollini and His Orchestra, 1933
(Manny Klein trumpet, Tommy Dorsey trombone, Benny Goodman clarinet, Jimmy Dorsey alto sax, Arthur Rollini tenor sax, Adrian Rollini bass sax/vibraphone, Fulton McGrath piano, Dick McDonough guitar, Herb Weil drums, Howard Philip vocals) 

Farewell Blues, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang and their All-star Orchestra, 1931
(Charlie Teagarden trumpet, Jack Teagarden trombone/vocals, Benny Goodman clarinet, Joe Venuti violin, Frank Signorelli piano, Eddie Lang guitar, Ward Lay string bass, Neil Marshall drums)

On Revival Day, Rube Bloom and His Bayou Boys, 1930
(Manny Klein trumpet, Jack Purvis trumpet, Tommy Dorsey trombone, Benny Goodman clarinet, Adrian Rollini bass sax, Dick McDonough guitar, Rube Bloom piano/vocals, Stan King drums, Roy Evans vocals)

You're the One I Care For, Annette Hanshaw, 1931
(Tommy Dorsey trombone, Benny Goodman clarinet, Artie Bernstein string bass, others: ???)

Bix Beiderbecke, I'll be a Friend With Pleasure, 1930
(Bix Beiderbecke cornet, Ray Ludwig trumpet, Tommy Dorsey trombone, Benny Goodman and Jimmy Dorsey clarinet/alto sax, Bud Freeman tenor sax, Min Leibrook string bass, Joe Venuti violin, Irving Brodsky piano, Eddie Lang guitar, Gene Krupa drums, Weston Vaughn vocals)

St. James Infirmary, Rube Bloom and His Bayou Boys, 1930
(Manny Klein trumpet, Tommy Dorsey trombone, Benny Goodman clarinet, Adrian Rollini bass sax, Rube Bloom piano, Stan King drums, Roy Evans vocals)

The Yacht Club Boys, Super Special Picture of the Year, 1934
(Charles Adler, George Kelly, Jimmy Kern, Billy Mann: vocals
Benny Goodman, clarinet; others unknown)

Royal Garden Blues, Ted Lewis and His Band, 1931
(Mugsy Spanier and Dave Klein trumpet, George Brunies and Sam Bank trombone, Benny Goodman clarinet, Louis Martin alto/baritone sax, Tony Gerhardi guitar, John Lucas drums, Harry Barth bass, Fats Waller piano/vocals)
Also, I didn't even know this song had lyrics!


I forgot this one.  So good.  (If you're skipping to the end, go listen to #10.)

Deep Harlem, Irving Mills and His Hotsy-Totsy Gang, 1930

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"Updating" run amok

Recently, a friend of a friend on Facebook posted a link to a press release about an upcoming album.  The album was supposed to be some sort of homage to Fats Waller, and the wording of the press release gave her hope that it might be good music for Lindy Hoppers.  

So, I clicked, and I read, but it didn't give me any hope.  It said things like:

"recasts the music of the legendary jazz entertainer Fats Waller as a modern dance party"

So, that sounds good, right?  But then:

"I asked myself what could be the extra layer, or the extra couple of layers, we might add to Fats' music to provide a number of different ways for audiences to enjoy it?"

Hmmm.  Now I'm feeling a bit suspicious.  Extra layers?

"From the propulsive afrobeat groove of 'Yacht Club Swing'..."
Uhh...  so it's not swing music.  Well, I guess I didn't really expect that...
 "Moran and Ndegeocello radically recast Waller’s repertoire for our times."
And that's where any hope I that I had evaporated.  Nonetheless, I looked it up and found some clips.  It was worse than I expected.  Judging from these clips, the album will have competent playing by good musicians.  But it has nearly nothing to do with Fats Waller.  Now, I don't mind if these musicians want to explore their own musical ideas, and if they want to use the Fats Waller tunes to do so...   but if they wanted to pay tribute to him (or exploit his famous name), I think it would be more fitting to play the songs in such a way that they are recognizable.  I don't know why the music has to be "radically recast" for our times.  

Do you think I'm exaggerating?  The review in the New York Times says this:
On Friday and Saturday Jason Moran and Meshell Ndegeocello led a band of jazz musicians through tunes that started in fragments of Fats Waller songs, or songs Waller played, or sometimes just the words from songs he played: “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Jitterbug Waltz,” “Your Feet’s Too Big,” “Two Sleepy People.” They started there but ended up in fragmented and repeated funk vamps cued by Mr. Moran’s Fender Rhodes electric piano and Ms. Ndegeocello’s chanting voice. [...] The Fats Waller songs served only as suggestions.

Moreover, this claims to be dance music, but if the album turns out to be anything like the clips I found, I don't see how it is danceable, no matter the dance.
I think it's a shame how often Lindy Hoppers get excited about various modern versions of swing music, only to find that these things don't work well for dancing.  (Dancers, what is wrong with the old stuff?)  I also think it's telling that a piano player would seek to pay homage to Fats Waller, one of the most entertaining piano players ever, by playing music which is no doubt intellectually interesting to other jazz musicians, but which has no appeal for a broad audience.  This shows just how far jazz has moved away from its roots as popular music.

Waller and the other musicians of his time were extremely able, but they did something that musicians of their ability rarely do today: they practiced the craft of entertaining.  These musicians did not lack in sophisticated ideas, but they focused their formidable ability on the task of playing fun music for dancers and average listeners.  This was not simple music, but it often did sound simple.  The musicians, partly out of necessity, sacrificed some freedom and creativity to keep the music fun.  I think that makes the music they produced more, not less, interesting.  It is fascinating to me to see how they worked within the boundaries of popular music.  This is also not an easy thing to do. 
It is also strange to me that in all of the clips I have looked at Moran never plays in even an imitation of the stride piano style.  Waller is practically synonymous with this style, and it was a style that every jazz player had to learn at least up until (and including) Thelonious Monk.  I don't know whether Moran is unable or unwilling to play stride piano.  Either way, it's a shame.  

(If you don't know what stride is, look at a piece like "Carolina Shout," below.  "Stride" refers to the way the left hand makes big, and regular, leaps between a bass note and a chord about an octave higher.  This was the basis of Fats Waller's style, and of swing era piano playing in general, and it's not easy.)
Just as Waller's style is not easy, even though it may sound simpler, playing for dancers is not easy.  It is truly an art of its own, and it is one that has been lost in post- World War II jazz.  I get the impression that current jazz students regard this old music as nothing more than a quaint curiosity.  I think people today are still heavily influenced by the desire that created be-bop; the desire to have people listen carefully and seriously to your musical ideas...  and not dance, because that would take away from the listening.  Even if I don't like the result, I'm glad that Moran has the impulse to bring dance back to jazz.  

Finally, what bothers me most about this is the idea that this older music needs to be updated.  This project is typical of a belief that there is some value in old things but that people today cannot appreciate them for their inherent value.  This is especially common when it comes to old jazz.  I don't understand this attitude.  When I go to see a performance of classical music, it is not "updated" to make it more accessible to me.  Yes, the interpretation of the music changes over time, but subtly; the music is presented with the goal of authenticity.  The unspoken agreement is that the music is worth appreciating and that the audience will make the effort to appreciate it for what it is.  This same agreement applies to performances of post World War II jazz.  But older jazz doesn't get this kind of respect.  Why?  I guess because it was popular dance music.  I see no other reason.

What I object to is the subtext that in our age we are not capable of appreciating the music of Fats Waller, or that it is too much to expect people to make an effort to do so.  If Moran does not think this, he must think that simply playing Waller's music is beneath him, and his words of praise for Waller suggest otherwise.

- - - - -
Clips of Moran's Project:

Here is a performance of Carolina Shout where you can see the left hand fairly well.  I had a hard time finding a video which shows the left hand clearly, and the left hand is what defines stride piano:  

Finally, Fats Waller.  Don't let his mugging distract you from his ability:

Monday, June 9, 2014

The three minute song, the woodblock, and the bass sax

Some of you may know Christian Bossert, and his page, Swing DJ Resources.  He recently invited me to contribute something to the page.  I was not sure what would fit, but I wrote about modern versus vintage recordings.  I tried to keep it short and focussed, but there is a lot more to say on the subject.

This time, I'd like to talk a little bit about how the recording technology of the 20s and 30s shaped the music we know from the period.  

If you have never seen a record from the period, you might be surprised to find that they are very different from later ones.  Most of us are used to 12 inch records made of vinyl, played at a speed of 33 1/3 rpm, and holding about 20 minutes of music per side.  These are a relatively new invention, though.  Before WWII, records were usually 10 inches, made of shellac, and held only three minutes per side, playing at 78 rpm.  This, essentially, is why classic jazz recordings are three minutes long.  There is plentiful evidence that the bands played longer versions during live performances, but when it came time to record, the song had to be arranged to last three minutes.  For this reason, commercially released records give us only a piece of the picture-- this is not necessarily the way the music was performed.  There are some recordings available from radio shows in the 30s and 40s which did not have this time restriction, and these have much longer versions of familiar songs.

Another important fact is that the technology of the 1920s simply could not handle the sound of a typical jazz band.  Drums were especially problematic-- they were simply too loud and percussive and would result in the recording device skipping or distorting.  This is why so many recordings from the period feature only wood block and cymbals for percussion; it is not because drums were not part of the style.  Full drums sets were common in jazz bands, but they could not be recorded.  Even a musician stomping his foot could be a problem.

Here is a quote from the book Jazz Anecdotes (which I highly recommend):

Cuba Austin described some technical problems on a date at Victor with McKinney's Cotton Pickers in 1928:

We had a lot of trouble with the engineers.  In those days everybody took off their shoes and had a pillow under his feet so the thud from beating the rhythm didn't ruin things.  Well, on Milenburg Joys the band was beating a fast rhythm and then, bit by bit, the pillows kept sliding away.  We ruined several takes that way.

Now the worst of all was Prince Robinson.  Don Redman hit on the idea of lashing Prince's ankles and knees together with rope to hold him steady.  We started another time and things went smoothly 'til Prince started a solo; then he began to bob up and down with his feet tied together, and finally gave up in the middle of it-- looked at Don and said, "Aw, Don.  I can't play tied up like this."

Bass instruments were equally problematic.  On early recordings, it was nearly impossible to capture the sound of a string bass.  Tuba came through better, but it tended to end up sounding "blurry."  Tuba does not have the sharp attack of a plucked note on a string bass, and these early recordings only emphasized the problem.  The brief popularity of bass saxophones may be partly due to this problem.  The bass sax was simply easier to record than tuba or string bass.  (Even so, most recordings from the period use tuba or string bass, though they are often very hard to hear.)

Singers had problems too...  Without a microphone, the only way for the singer to be heard over the band was to sing louder than the band.  Few singers have that kind of power, and the necessity of doing this (live and for recordings) shaped the singing style of the day.  The "shouting" style of singing that we hear on these recordings may not have been an artistic decision so much as a practical requirement.  It was only with the use of microphones that singers could sing more expressively and still be heard.

Likewise, banjos were popular in pre-microphone days largely because they are so loud.  It's just very difficult to play an acoustic guitar loud enough to compete with a horn section.  As technology changed the guitar became more viable.  It didn't really become possible to play guitar solos until the advent of the electric guitar.

All of these problems were greatly reduced with the arrival of "electrical" recordings.  These were recordings which were made using a microphone instead of a purely mechanical device.  They first appeared in 1925, but it was not until the early 1930s that all recordings were made this way.  There was a transitional period during which the recordings which were expected to be most popular were made electrically, while other bands were still recording mechanically for "budget" record labels.  (These budget labels were often owned by the same companies that were making electrical recordings under another name.)  Unfortunately for us, much of the most interesting music of the period was not regarded as having a lot of commercial potential, so it was recorded with the inferior process.

By about 1930, recordings were generally of very high quality, and improving all the time.  But there are a couple of very important considerations which did not change until the 1950s.  One was the three-minute time limit.  The other was the lack of multi-tracking.  Today, each instrument can be recorded separately.  This has two effects: first, one can layer sounds endlessly, and the product can combine musicians who played at different times in different places.  Second, one can fix mistakes.  Did you play a wrong note? That's okay, we can go back and record over it with the right one!  I love listening to older recordings knowing that the performance I hear is the one that the band actually gave.  There was no editing, nothing fixed, no one added or subtracted.  These old recordings are full of mistakes.  You will find them if you listen carefully, but I don't mind them at all.  They just make it more interesting to me.

So, next time you listen to recordings from this period, remind yourself that what is on the record may be very different from the way the band played normally.  These recordings only give a glimpse of what the music might have been, not a true picture of what it was.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Maybe it's in the Hamburgers

So, a couple of posts ago, I talked about "Variety Stomp."

There is a great story about how this song came to be.

Apparently, Fats Waller was hanging out with Fletcher Henderson.  They went out to eat, and Fats ate ten hamburgers.  When they were done, he explained that he didn't have any money to pay for them, but he offered to write Fletcher ten songs if Fletcher would pay the bill.  According to the story, Fletcher accepted the bargain, and Fats immediately sketched out ten songs.

These songs included "Top and Bottom" (aka "Henderson Stomp"), "Thundering Stomp" (aka "Hot Mustard"), St. Louis Shuffle, Whiteman Stomp, and...  Variety Stomp.

Henderson reportedly paid Waller ten dollars for each song, in addition to the hamburgers.

This story may be exaggerated, but it's not the only story like this.  Waller supposedly wrote "Minor Drag" in the car on the way to the session where it was recorded.  We can't be sure just how true these stories are, but their existence testifies to the ease with which Waller wrote new songs.  It seems almost as if they just spilled out of him.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

You keep using that word.

NOTE:  This entry was an attempt to respond to some things I was hearing.  It was an ambitious thing to take on, and I took it on too hastily.  I'm going to resist the urge to delete it, but I now consider it to be a very unsuccessful attempt to say what I meant.  Maybe I'll try again someday.

Actually, two words: New Orleans.

I don't think it means what you think it means.

And it's really starting to bother me.

But, there is a simple and better way to talk about music: say what you mean.  And, you don't have to know any fancy words.  That's the solution, but first let's define the problem.

Every time I have a conversation about music in the dance scene, someone complains about what music is being played (this is unavoidable) and expresses their complaint in terms of genre, or style.  I've heard so many people talk about whether too much "New Orleans" music is being played.  I was recently asked whether "New Orleans style" jazz was the style that I want to play.  I've heard people refer to "big band style" music.

People, I think I know what you think you mean when you say these things, but the words are almost meaningless.  At best, these terms are fuzzy.  At worst, they could indicate that you don't know what you are talking about.  If you want someone to listen to your opinion, it's always a good idea to be precise, if you can.

So, let's talk about styles.  But first, as a person who has had to take multiple endless, awful, complicated graduate courses about the naming, identification, and understanding of styles, I want to share these unchangeable truths:
    -Names of styles are aids to understanding and conversation.  They are tools, not truth.
    -Names of styles are usually fixed after the style stops evolving.  They are usually retrospective; they refer to something which is historical, which is dead*.  Creation is confusing and messy, but afterwards we want to make it nice and neat and give it a name.
    -Style names are most useful within a field or community where everyone understands what is meant by the words (especially in academia), but even then the names are often contested and controversial.
    -Style names are often used to divide communities by exaggerating differences and marking cliques (from within or without).

There are plenty of problems in categorizing jazz music, so let's concentrate on one example: the use of the words "New Orleans."  When dancers talk about New Orleans music, I assume that they mean Meschiya Lake and Tuba Skinny.  There are two problems here.  One is that Meschiya Lake and Tuba Skinny play very different kinds of music.  They are not the same style.  The other is that there is such a thing as New Orleans style jazz, and it is probably not what you think it is.  Jazz came from New Orleans.  We all know that.  I think most people would understand "New Orleans style jazz" to refer to the kind of jazz that originally developed in New Orleans. I think this is logical.  Here's the thing: I can't think of a single band in New Orleans today that plays that style.  There are probably bands in the world that do, but I don't know of any.  So, if you refer to New Orleans style jazz, you may only be demonstrating that you don't know what it is.  Quick, imagine it.  What does it sound like?  What does the band look like?  What kind of beat does it have?

Did you imagine a dixieland band?  Maybe playing a song like "Everybody Loves my Baby?"  Each musician takes a solo?  Maybe some straw boater hats and striped vests, if you're so inclined?  Good.

Except...  Dixieland is nostalgic fiction.  It seeks to recreate something which never existed.  It borrows heavily from the earliest New Orleans jazz, but it is a unique creation, and has its roots in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco.

Maybe you thought of Preservation Hall.

Ok, that's better.  That is New Orleans music.  But it is also a revival movement, or a result of evolution, depending how you look at it.  I don't mean that in a negative way, but what the musicians of Preservation Hall play and always have played is a new creation (starting in the 1950s), though very much inspired by what came before.  It is its own style.

So what is New Orleans style jazz?  There are two answers:
     -It is no one thing.
     -We don't know.

It is no one thing because, as in any scene at any time, different people are doing the different things which excite them or which might be good for business.  Jazz has been played every day in New Orleans for over 100 years, and it keeps changing.  Even if we wanted to keep playing it the same way, we couldn't.  We are not immune to the influence of new kinds of music.

We don't know because, well, we don't.  There are practically no recordings that capture it.  Most of the ones we have were made somewhere else, after all the great pioneers of New Orleans jazz moved on to other places, and were influenced by other kinds of music.

The key point here is that we are trying to talk about one term, New Orleans, and we now have a number of different styles to consider:
     -the ur-jazz of Buddy Bolden, which no living person has ever heard,
     -the first recorded jazz of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, which is probably a commercialized and sanitized version of what was happening in New Orleans years earlier,
     -music of Kid Ory and King Oliver, which was probably influenced by newer music by the time it was recorded,
     -the music of Jelly Roll Morton, which was heavily shaped by other music by the time it was recorded,
     -the Music of Preservation Hall, which was created from a mixture of tradition and innovation in the 1950s,
     -the music of Pete Fountain which-- well it's awful saccharine crap, but he's a good clarinet player,
     -the music of the Jazz Vipers, which is inspired by New York jazz,
     -the music of Meschiya Lake, which melds countless influences into something new which feels old
     -the music of Tuba Skinny, which draws from all kinds of old American vernacular music, and makes it sound old but feel new

Which one do you mean, exactly?  Tuba Skinny is not like the Jazz Vipers.

A similar problem applies to decades.  General trends do exist within decades, but at any time there are a lot of very different things happening.  So if you say twenties music is this or that, someone who knows a lot of twenties music might stop listening to you, concluding that you don't know what you're talking about.

This same problem exists with the term "trad."  I think I know what people mean when they use it, but I'm not always sure.  If a musician I know uses it, I know what they mean because I know what their outlook is, but if a dancer uses it, I can't be sure what they think it means.  Properly, it refers to an English jazz revival movement, which is not what anyone I know means when they say it.  A lot of people use it to mean "good dixieland," because the word dixieland is now almost synonymous with "bad music."

Then, the idea that "big band" is a style...  I...  I...  No.  It means the band is big.  Say "big band swing" and I know what you mean, in a foggy way.  But it would be better to say "big band swing like Benny Goodman."

Now, let me be very clear: I am not trying to put anyone down.  I don't think you have to go study and absorb the whole history of jazz before you can have an opinion.  (I haven't.)  But I would suggest that you will have more useful discussions if you are a bit more precise.  If you mean "music like Tuba Skinny" or "music like Benny Goodman," say that.  (And if you mean "music like Count Basie" or "music like Ella Fitzgerald," please also specify a decade.)  It's fine to not have the right word.  If you say this music is too charleston-y or too bouncy or too nervous, or that the other music is too smooth or it doesn't have enough energy, then we have something to talk about.  You don't have to know music theory to talk about music.  But if you say that this dance event has too much New Orleans style, or that 20s music doesn't swing...  that's...  difficult.

To avoid interrupting the flow of this, I've saved the examples for last.  Here are a few...

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, 1917
We must assume that this represents what early jazz was in New Orleans, because we don't have any recordings that are earlier.  The important points about this are that there are no solos and that it has an even 4-beat feel, not a 2-beat Charleston feel.

King Oliver, 1923
This unquestionably represents what New Orleans jazz was, but it was recorded in Illinois.  King Oliver left New Orleans for Chicago five years earlier, in 1918.  Did his music change?  Probably.  A lot?  Who knows?  Now we have a clarinet solo, but still a nice 4-beat feel and ensemble playing is still the emphasis.

Sam Morgan's Jazz Band, recorded in New Orleans, 1927
Is this New Orleans jazz?  Yeah, I guess.  But now there are saxophones.  That's new.  It's still got a 4-beat feel, and stresses ensemble playing over solos.  Is it borrowing ideas from New York and Chicago jazz by this time?  Yeah, I think it is, but that is not definite.

Meschiya Lake
Is this New Orleans jazz?  Well, it is jazz.  It comes from New Orleans.  It was recorded in New Orleans.  But it has very little to do with what New Orleans jazz was.  It has newfangled instruments like a guitar.  It has more of a two-beat feel.  It has solos.  It is a song written in 1939 in New York.  It has a lot of New Orleans feel to it, but it's the New Orleans feel of the 21st century.  (Also, I was surprised to find my photo at the start of this video.  You never know where they'll go.)

Tuba Skinny
Is this New Orleans music?  It's in New Orleans.  It has guitars, saxophones, and washboard, just like New Orleans music always used to have.  No, wait-- that other word.  Never.  Never used to have.  It's a song written in 1931, after the heyday of New Orleans jazz.  (Written in Scranton, Pennsylvania, I think.)  It's got plenty of solos, and a bit of a 2-beat feel.  It's got the feeling of an old recording from somewhere, but I wouldn't say it has a New Orleans groove, whether old or new.

It's been pointed out to me that there is no guitar here.  Mea culpa.  There was in the other four Tuba Skinny videos of this song that I tried to post, and which Blogger wouldn't accept.

The New Orleans Jazz Vipers
Is this New Orleans Jazz?  Well, it is "smokin' jazz from New Orleans," as the band described themselves.  But no, this is New York style jazz, with a wonderful dose of New Orleans funkiness.  It has nothing to do with any "New Orleans" style.  (And it's great!)  It's a song written in 1939 in New York by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf.

We could do this all day with New Orleans examples, or with 20s examples, or with big band styles.  That's not the point.  Enjoy this music, and just say what you mean.

*dead, as a parrot might be.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Fletcher Henderson, an introduction

A couple of posts ago, I talked about King Porter Stomp, and about Fletcher Henderson's various versions of it.  I think it would make sense to say a little bit more about Henderson.  I've found that Henderson's name is not as well known as the stars of the swing era.  For that reason, I'm not going to delve deeply into the details of Henderson's biography or do a lot of musical analysis, I'd like to just give some examples of what I think makes Henderson special.  I think the best thing is for people to hear this important band, and to let the sound speak for itself.  So, a lot of music in this post.  (I tried to have fewer words to make up for it.)

Fletcher Henderson was born in Georgia in 1897, and led a band from 1922 through 1939.  Henderson's band probably did the most to develop what we now recognize as big band swing music.  From the beginning, the band used complex arrangements and syncopations, but the early recordings often sound stiff.  This early recording of "The Stampede" shows both the potential and the limitations of the early Henderson band; the arrangement is catchy and exciting, but the playing is stiff.

The Stampede, 1926

There is a lot of criticism of Henderson's band based on its stiff sound.  Much of this is unfair, though-- this was about as swinging as anything being played at the time.  As time went on, the band developed a really swinging sound which was a huge influence on many bands, including Benny Goodman's.  Perhaps the most important contribution of the Henderson band was the way it used instruments in sections to play riffs.  These riffing sections are an essential ingredient of later swing music.  The interplay of sections which made the early recordings interesting and exciting worked even better as the band found a smoother, more swinging sound.

The Stampede, 1937

This later recording is also a perfect example of something that I think the Henderson band did as well or better than any other band: they acheived a kind of elegant sophistication in their sound.  The swing is relaxed and driving at the same time.  This is hard to do, but essential for this kind of music.  Overall, the music is exciting, yet it is not wild.  The saxophones are wonderfully euphonious, the trumpets and trombones are strong but not excessively so...  Duke Ellington is rightly praised for the sophistication of his music, but I think Henderson's band, at its best, combined sophisticated elegance with joyous swing in a way that no other band ever quite equalled.  I find it hard to put this into words.

Variety Stomp is an example of the importance that arranging always played for the Henderson band.  The early recordings are quite unlike big band swing music, but they are very much like earlier dance band music in the complexity of the arrangements.  They are full of tricks and surprises.  Variety Stomp lives up to its name by being full of ideas.  It seems like enough material for many songs was distilled and combined into three minutes.  I also find the ending of this song to be interesting.  It sounds a bit like a mistake.  This may be true, as the band recorded three versions of the song in one day, and another version about a month later.  That may be evidence that the band was having a hard time getting this complicated song right.

Variety Stomp, 1927

Radio Rhythm is another recording which I think shows the trademarks of the early Henderson recordings.  It is frantic and full of strange rhythms and harmonies.  I love the oddness of it.  I assume that the rhythm of the trumpets is supposed to imitate the sound of someone saying the words "Ra-di-o Rhy-thm."  Like Variety Stomp, it has a dark and threatening quality-- this is not entirely happy music, and I like that.

Radio Rhythm, 1931

Christopher Columbus is a perfect example of the riffing style of the Henderson band.  These exchanges of riffs between the sections became more prominent in Henderson's arrangements as time went on, and this became the most important aspect of big band arranging during the swing era.  This recording is also notable for a trumpet solo by Roy Eldridge, who would become a star in his own right during the swing era.  It is a fact that Henderson's arrangements were the basis for the swing-era big band sound.  By the time of this recording, Benny Goodman, in need of arrangements for his band, had bought many of Henderson's arrangements and turned them into standards for the new swing era.

Christopher Columbus, 1936

In Jangled Nerves, we can hear the band still achieving a relaxed and easy swing at 300 beats per minute.  It doesn't sound as fast as it is, until you try to dance to it.

Jangled Nerves, 1936

Finally, Riffin'.  I include this only because of the title.  Perhaps it's evidence that Henderson knew by this time what his influence had been.

Riffin, 1936

I'll note here that the history of the Henderson band is quite complicated.  The band was quite innovative during the twenties, yet never seemed to achieve its potential.  These recordings from 1936 have a very different sound.  This is because there are many new members in the band, and probably because the band was influenced by the newer bands that were playing Henderson's own material in a new way.  I'll also note that, while Henderson himself was a gifted arranger, the band used various other arrangers, so one must not assume that all of these ideas were Henderson's.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Songology: contrafacts and aliases

In the last post, I talked about King Porter Stomp.  I quoted Jelly Roll Morton as having said that many later songs "made great tunes of themselves" using "the backgrounds" from King Porter.  What does this mean?

It's a good introduction to a few important aspects of how jazz evolves...  first of all, the general fact that musicians steal ideas from each other.  The best musicians steal the best ideas.  In this way, new songs are written as variations of old songs.  The degree of variation can be large or small.  A common type of variation is contrafact.  This means that the new song uses the same chord progression as the old song.

In the case of King Porter Stomp, one section of Morton's original composition was so appealing to jazz musicians that it became known as the "Stomp Progression," and many other songs were written using this progression.  This is a common phenomenon in jazz.  For example, countless other songs have been written using the chord progression to "I Got Rhythm," and any jazz musician is expected to know the "rhythm changes," the chord progression from "I Got Rhythm."

So, why is this interesting?  Well, I think it's inherently interesting, but it's also interesting because it often explains why a new song seems so familiar.  It can also explain how one gets two songs mixed up with each other.  For dancers, it is interesting because it partly explains why we often can anticipate what is coming in an unfamiliar song.  It's not just that they share a basic structure, the details of the structure-- the chord changes-- are often shared between songs.

My favorite example of this is a song based on "Blue Skies."

Listen to "Blue Skies"

Now listen to "In Walked Bud" by Thelonious Monk.  It would never be mistaken for "Blue Skies," but it is a contrafact; it shares the same chords, and one can easily sing the melody to "Blue Skies" over a recording of "In Walked Bud." Try it.

"In Walked Bud"

There are endless examples of this practice in jazz...  This list is only a start.

There are two other things that can cause a lot of confusion: different songs with the same name and the same songs with different names.  One cannot copyright the title of a song, so anyone is free to write a new song with the same name.  This can cause a lot of disappointment when you think you have found a rare version of a great song...  and it turns out to be a different song entirely.

The other case is when the same song becomes known by two names.  It's not clear to me why this happens; just because you give the song a new name, it does not change the rights of the person who wrote the melody.  (The melody of a song may be copyrighted, but the chord changes cannot.  This is why people are free to use the chord changes to make contrafacts, but one may be sued for stealing a melody.)

Here is an example of a song with two names:

Sugarfoot Stomp

Dippermouth Blues

So, if you hear a song, and think it sounds a lot like another song, you're probably right...

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

Monday, April 14, 2014

Why you gotta play all that old stuff?

In the swing dance scene lately, I've heard a lot of conflict between people who want to expand the variety of music at dances versus those people who favor some sense of authenticity.

I'll admit that I'm on the authenticity side... but at the same time, I don't think we should be too dogmatic about it, because nothing we can do will ever be truly authentic.  (That's a discussion for another day.)  Nonetheless, I favor old recordings, or new recordings that are reminiscent of old recordings, particularly from current-day New Orleans bands.  Why?  Well, it actually doesn't have a whole lot to do with any idea of authenticity.  It's because I think it's the best music.

I find that the music that most makes me want to dance is music recorded before World War II There are very few players today, and even fewer bands, who are as good as the old bands.  That's just a fact.  If you want the best chance of finding a great recording, you should search through the old stuff.  Why is this?  There are many subtle qualities that I could point out in these recordings, and many reasons why those qualities might be present, but I think the real difference comes down to three major reasons.

First, these recordings are the sound of innovation and creativity, and they capture the excitement of the creative act.  It's very hard to bring the same feeling to something which is essentially an act of recreation.

Second, the players on these recordings were immersed in this music.  They weren't working in an obscure specialty, which is what swing is today.  They were working in the dominant idiom of their time, surrounded by it all the time.  Additionally, dancing was one of the most popular social activities.  Thus, the music was not primarily music for listening.  There were certainly groups that played a sophisticated music for listening, but the work of a musician in those days was mostly to play for dancers.  This is important.  Dances and music evolved together, to fit each other.  Perhaps more importantly, musicians' paychecks depended on making dancers happy.  The most successful musicians were the ones who excited people to dance.  This is a situation which simply does not exist any more, and, as a result, modern re-creations of swing music and hot jazz do not have the same feel.

Another thing that we can barely imagine today is how much the musicians of previous generations played.  Read about the jazz and swing era, and you will come across many accounts of endless days and nights of rehearsing, recording, performing, and jamming.  It wasn't only the alcohol that resulted in so many musicians dying young.  In his book The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller says of Bunny Berigan that  "During most of a six- to eight-month period, calculations indicate, Bunny's trumpet was pointed at either a microphone or a live audience for at least seventy hours per week."

No one plays this much today.  But jazz bands in New Orleans play almost every day, often for many hours.  I believe this is one simple reason that there is better music coming from New Orleans than almost anywhere else.  Also, in New Orleans, music is still primarily social.  Bands play mainly for tips, and the band that gets people moving is the band that makes a living.  I think this accounts for the fact that most of the new recordings that I find as exciting as the old ones are from New Orleans bands.  I think there is no way to learn the style of playing that will really make dancers want to move, other than playing for dancers.  Possibly the only place where this environment still exists to some degree is New Orleans.

- - - - - - - - 

This happens (almost) every Sunday in New Orleans.  You can spend hours following the band around, running into friends and neighbors, and catching up on the neighborhood news.  This, in my opinion, is the only example of a living tradition of swinging, social jazz for dancing.

Another of many possible examples from New Orleans.  This band is not playing for dancers, but they are playing for dancing and socializing.