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.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Unheard

I'd like to start things off by talking a bit about listening.  I don't think I'm going to say anything that is not obvious, but some things can never be said enough.  These include: listen to a lot of music, listen carefully, and rhythm is everything.

So, let's start with listening.  If you want to learn something about music, "listen to a lot of music" is good advice, and pretty simple.  But really listening is one thing, and hearing is another.  Listening is a willful act, a decision.  Hearing is a different thing.  Hearing is the perceiving and understanding.  It requires more than will.  It also requires skill, which comes from practice... and luck.  I have listened intently to many songs and solos, and I still can't really hear what is happening-- and I don't mean that I don't understand all of the music theory of what I'm hearing, I mean I can't quite pick out the notes and sounds.  This is an experience that is probably familiar to everyone, and so frustrating.

Let's pause here and do some listening.  If you read the first entry in this blog, this will be familiar.  If you didn't, it will still be familiar.  Go listen to "It Don't Mean a Thing" (the 1932 version).  Listen at least through the end of the first vocal section.  (When I include a link, please use it for at least the first listening.  This is because many songs were recorded in multiple versions.  The Duke Ellington band recorded this song many times, but here I am talking about only one particular recording.  If I tell you to just go listen to "It Don't Mean a Thing" you may find a different version.)

Sadly, this frustration in listening is always present to some degree.  We can't ever absorb everything that is there in music.  But that makes it all the more fascinating and rewarding.  If we could hear everything the first time, would we ever listen a second time?  Still, it is very noticeable how much more some people hear, particularly musicians.  It can be startling how quickly a musician notices details that the average listener struggles to hear.  This is evidence of two things: musical hearing gets better with practice, and hearing and understanding go hand in hand; it's easier to hear something that fits patterns that you know and that you have a name for.

So, you can't hear all of the of details music without understanding it, and you can't understand it without hearing it.  It's a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg problem.  I have observed this in music classes I have taken, and in the one I taught, and it can be particularly hard with jazz, where there is so much happening at the same time.  It seems that one of the hardest things for many listeners is to differentiate the sounds of the various horns.  I certainly found it hard.  So what can one do?

Well... let me pause here and say that I have no magical answers for anything.  I am not an authority... on anything.  But I hope that if you came here with an interest in jazz, you will leave here with more excitement about it, and with a very long list of songs and artists that you want to listen to.  Anyway...

I think that a good way practice this type of hearing is to listen to music that uses the traditional trumpet-trombone-clarinet horn section.  In traditional jazz, each instrument has a well-defined role.  If one begins to understand that role, it becomes easier to pick out what each instrument is doing, even when the sounds begin to merge.  This, in turn, sharpens your ear's ability to recognize each instrument simply by sound.  This can be surprisingly hard sometimes-- for example, in a song with clarinet and violin.  When playing together their sounds can merge almost completely.

The absolute best way to improve one's musical hearing may be to watch a live band.  I don't think there is anything as helpful as closely watching one musician at a time, while listening intently.  In this way, one learns what sounds each instrument is making, how it is making them, and possibly why-- how it fits in with the rest of the band.  Understanding that fit by seeing and listening is one of the best ways to understand the structure and language of the music.

Another tool for hearing is duplication. If you play an instrument, try to learn the parts that you hear. You will quickly realize how much you didn't hear before, or mis-heard. With practice, you will find that you hear more and more accurately.

Finally, rely on others.  If you read music, a transcription can be very enlightening.  In all cases, reading written descriptions of music can transform one's hearing of the music.  This type of reading can very dull, and very slow if you listen to recordings to understand what the writing refers to.  But in my experience, it opens up entirely new ways of understanding songs and often reveals layers of sound that had been unheard.  The books I have read about jazz have revealed to me so many things that I just never heard on my own.  This is also why it can be great fun to listen together and talk about what is heard.  The idea of "listening parties" may sound deadly boring, but it's a great way to hear more details.

So now let's go back to "It Don't Mean a Thing."  My inspiration for this essay was my reading of Gunther Schuller's Swing Era.  In it, he describes this 1932 recording, saying: "But perhaps the most felicitous touch on the entire side is Harry Carney's happily lilting baritone obbligato behind Ivie's vocal chorus."  I read this and thought: "I love baritone sax.  I love Harry Carney's baritone sax.  I've been listening to this recording for 15 years.  That can't be in there, because I never heard it!"

Well, it is there, and it's glorious.  It's now my favorite part of the song.  Listen for the exuberant baritone sax cascading behind the first vocal section, from 0:46 to 1:18.  For me, it transforms this from a very good song into something unbearably joyful.

And that's today's sermon.  Go listen.  Then read and talk and listen some more.

- - - - - - - - - 

If you're still reading, I've got some bonus examples for you.  

First, "Cotton Club Stomp."  Ellington recorded two songs by this name.  This one has long been one of my favorite recordings.  

I was listening to this in the car one day, and I had a friend in the car with me.  I mentioned how much I loved the baritone sax in this song (Harry Carney again), and my friend yelled "DUDE!  I never heard that before!  Fuck, that's awesome!"  Yeah, that's the kind of friends I have.  Anyway, she figured she must have always been listening to the trumpet instead, even though the sax is pretty easy to hear in this song.  Hear it from 0:08 to 0:39.  The other highlight of this song for me is the clarinet rising and then cascading down from 2:21 to 2:27.

There is also a pretty damn good performance of this song by a modern band, which will allow you to try watching the musicians, as I suggested above.

Finally, another song I have loved for years, and listened to hundreds of times.  I thought I knew it pretty well, but in Lost Chords, Richard Sudhalter mentions the false start that Annette Hanshaw makes toward the end of the song, and notes how skillfully Eddie Lang leads her out of it.  Again, I couldn't imagine that this was true and I never heard it.  Again, there it is.  At 2:13, you hear her start to sing and realize she is early.

If you made it this far, thank you, and I hope you enjoyed the music.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

What's this all about?

The idea for this came out of my move from New Orleans to Switzerland. I am a swing dancer and a musician, and in New Orleans I was able to dance almost every night to great live music. In Zurich, there are no traditional jazz/swing bands to speak of, and many of the DJs who play for dancers make... interesting choices. In the interest of encouraging people to listen better, dance better, and understand the history more, my wife and I taught a music class for dancers. We could only touch on the most basic concepts in the time that we had, and I wished I could talk about some of the great recordings. So, that's what this is about. I learned so much by being able to watch live bands play every night. Not everyone has that chance, and I'd like to share what I learned.

I intend this as a resource for swing dancers, but I don't want to limit it to dancers. That is part of the reason for the title. I specifically did not want to use the words "jazz," "swing," or "lindy." I just want to talk about quality music. The syncopated kind. You know, for kids. I also resisted calling it anything like "song of the week," because I didn't want to be locked into a particular schedule. Time will tell whether that was a good decision.

"There are two kinds of music.  Good music, and the other kind."  -Duke Ellington

 I think I should also say something here to answer the question of who, exactly, I think I am. I'm a jazz enthusiast. I'm a mediocre swing dancer and musician. That's all. If you don't agree with something I claim, or think that my ignorance is showing... well, you may be right. It's going to happen.

Regarding the blog format: I chose it because I thought that Facebook posts would be too limiting. But I still want to have the kind of discussion that Facebook fosters. So, my plan is to post detailed essays here, with multiple sound and video clips linked. I will then post a link to a Facebook page, along with a single clip. The dedicated can read it all here, but I'm hoping the less-dedicated will get something good out of the Facebook summaries, and that there will be some debate over there.

The posts may take different forms, but I intend to examine either a song/artist or a broad theme with each one.  A big inspiration for this is the sadly-unavailable Schikele Mix.

 The first post will be up in a few days. In the meantime, listen to this. No, really listen. I know you've already heard it 1,000 times. That's the point.

Song link: It Don't Mean a Thing