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.