By February 26, 2013 0 Comments Read More →

Individuality: a lost art, and a video

As we’ve discussed the death of individual style in American music, we’ve provided some (hopefully) demonstrative playlists to support our rants. Today, we’ll provide an audio-visual example, in the form of what we consider to be one of the great filmed performances featuring musicians from jazz’s second and third generations.

This clip is from an episode of the 1950’s CBS TV show, Seven Lively Arts. This particular episode, which first aired in 1957, was called “The Sound of Jazz”, and featured mostly older musicians playing in a variety of formats and combinations. There’s a loose big band segment, led by Count Basie and featuring past and current members of his band, there’s a small group session featuring an all star unit led by Red Allen, an interlude by Thelonious Monk, and then there’s a famous blues jam featuring vocals by Billie Holiday. A wholly out-of-place bit by Jimmy Giuffre’s band rounds out the program. The video is a typically lousy kinescope, but the sound is OK, and it’s available for sale by various vendors, including, where it’s sold in various formats as a DVD (click link). It’s one of the great visual records of real jazz, and it’s a must-see for anyone interested in getting a better feel for the music.

We could have picked any of several gems from this program as examples of individuality among jazz musicians born in the years before the first World War, but this one is a dandy. Henry “Red” Allen was one of the trumpeters coming of age in the late 1920’s who owed the least, stylistically, to Louis Armstrong. The clip we’ve chosen is that small group session led by Allen. This was not a working band, of course. Instead, it’s an all-star unit, assembled by the producers at CBS, and it features some of the greatest jazz musicians alive at that time. Remember as you watch that these players were the old guard when this was shot, with most of them being past their fiftieth birthdays, and they were hardly considered “cutting edge” anymore. What they did still have—in abundance—was individuality. In addition to Allen, you’ll see Coleman Hawkins on tenor saxophone, Vic Dickenson on trombone, Rex Stewart on cornet and Pee Wee Russell on clarinet, along with a rhythm section of Danny Barker on guitar, Milt Hinton on bass, Nat Pierce on piano and Jo Jones on drums.

Despite being lumped together here as a sort of collection of old guys, these musicians actually came from quite different jazz genres, sometimes markedly so. In choosing a standard like “Rosetta”, however, and utilizing a generic swing jam format, they achieve something that’s a thing of beauty to behold.

Allen starts off with a vocal in his quirky style, followed by a tasty and ambitious chorus by Hawkins. Hawk was decades past his glory days, but this solo shows that his penchant for complex, improvised lines was still intact. The witty trombone of Dickinson is next, and shows what a truly great player can do with a fairly simple approach, especially when contrasted with the relative complexity of Hawkins’ solo. Rex Stewart follows with a blistering, tin cup muted solo, and leaves enough space for one to hear just how much this ad hoc rhythm section cooked. Danny Barker, especially, is swinging his ass off at this point in the video. A typically understated and oblique chorus by Pee Wee Russell is followed by Allen’s trumpet, a short solo by drummer Jones and an out chorus. Say what you will about Russell’s technique, or lack of it. It’s undeniably his own, and was inherent in his remarkably personal approach to the music. Some considered him a genius, while others cast him as a drunken buffoon. He’s nothing if not unique.

There is so much going on here, and so much that exemplifies both what it means to be a jazz musician and what it means to be an individual, that we could babble endlessly about its merits. Instead, consider this a gift from the jazz gods. A brief peek into the dimly-lit, kinescopic past, but a peek that may well define an art form.

Posted in: Jazz, Rants, Videos

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