By February 12, 2013 0 Comments Read More →

Individuality: another swing playlist, part 2

Continuing our swing playlist from yesterday, here are a few more items to check out. As always, click on the song title to link to Amazon audio samples and full versions for purchase.

We’ve supported our contention that the late 1930’s saw an explosion of easily discernible styles among big band soloists and individual jazz players more with tenor sax players than with any other example. We’ve covered Ben Webster, Chu Berry and Herschel Evans, Lester Young at length, so here the emphasis is mostly on the other players we’ve mentioned.

The undisputed, original heavyweight champion of jazz tenor saxophone playing was Coleman Hawkins. Later on, we’ll get into why he was not only such an important influence on other saxophonists, but also how he managed to stay relevant long after an age where most musicians typically became out-of-date. His most famous record is also one of his best. After essentially inventing the vocabulary, intonation and role of the tenor sax in jazz from the early 1920’s on, Hawkins was already an “old man” (by jazz standards) of 35 when he cut this in 1939, but it remains one of the great three minutes in 20th century recorded music. It’s “Body and Soul“, and shows how a brilliant jazz mind works. He completely ignores the melody of what was then a well-known pop tune, instead jumping right in from the first chorus with an improvised line of his own. His excursion over what were considered challenging chords at the time still sends chills up our spine. And that tone …

One of the few early tenor saxophonists to not be obviously beholden to Hawkins for inspiration was Bud Freeman. Here, from 1933 and well before Swing took over the world, he works out on “The Eel“. Freeman stayed active for decades after this, and was one of the shining lights in the movement to preserve the sounds of early jazz.

One of Hawkins’ most talented protegees was Don Byas. During the early days of World War II, he may have been the tenor player with the most revered chops, and he developed many “set” pieces to show them off. Here on “I Got Rhythm“, accompanied only by bassist Slam Stewart, he demonstrates that prodigious technique at a Town Hall concert from 1944. Byas was an important transitional figure as jazz moved from Swing to bebop during the war.

The final tenor player we’ll hear is Illinois Jacquet. A controversial figure in many ways, his technique is above reproach, and his influence was fairly broad. We’ll hear more from him as we move forward, as he became a prominent post-war saxophone voice, but it’s appropriate that our first taste of Jacquet be from the Swing era. This is the record that first garnered him some recognition, and it’s still one of the most famous saxophone solos ever recorded. It’s the Lionel Hampton Orchestra’sFlyin’ Home”, from 1941.

We also mentioned the short-lived phenomenon of smaller, bands-within-bands being spun off by the large dance orchestras of that era. It seemed to be isolated to orchestras who had at least some element of jazz in their music, and to those whose soloists were talented enough to make developing this sort of project viable. The first, and among the best, of these mini spin-offs were those from the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Even before Goodman hit it big as a pop star in 1937, he had decided to form a trio as an adjunct to the big band. In 1935, he hired the great African-American pianist Teddy Wilson, but prevailing Jim Crow sensibilities prevented Goodman from integrating his existing band. Instead, Goodman decided to use Wilson as a “feature” act, accompanied by Goodman’s clarinet and Gene Krupa’s drums from main band. Even a compromise like this took balls back then, but somehow it passed muster as something short of real integration. Goodman’s trio became a quartet when he hired another black musician in 1936, the pioneering vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. Yes, the same Hampton whose own band became a sensation with “Flyin’ Home” after he left Goodman in 1941.

Not only did Goodman’s trio and quartet serve—in a small, but real way—as impetus for beginning the slow integration of not only music, but society in general, they also created some truly memorable music. From 1935, here’s the trio playing “Body and Soul”. Note the differences between this version and Coleman Hawkins’ of four years later. Also note that Goodman, uncharacteristically, sticks essentially to the melody, and leaves all of the improvisation to Wilson’s piano. Then, here’s the quartet, from Goodman’s famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, playing “Dizzy Spells”. Hampton’s playing here is typically exciting and extroverted, and must have sounded like something out of Buck Rogers to those unused to hearing even partially electrified instruments, but the real star here is Wilson, whose solo is a thing of driving perfection.

Finally, we hear the culmination of Goodman’s small group experiments with “Breakfast Feud” by the sextet, from 1941. It features that pioneer of the electric guitar, Charlie Christian. Oh yeah, we’ll be hearing more from him. For now, enjoy this small taste.

Some of the other bands within bands we mentioned were Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five, Bob Crosby’s Bobcats and Count Basie’s Kansas City Seven. Much like his orchestra, Shaw’s little group was sometimes more about slick, showy playing than real jazz, but it was musical as hell. Uniquely, it features pianist Johnny Guarnieri on harpsichord (!), and it was actually a big-seller for Shaw. Here they are on “Summit Ridge Drive” from 1939. Any reservations we have about Shaw as an important jazz figure are more than compensated for by his brilliant, screw-the-paycheck attitude and often exciting recordings. Plus, he had way more hot wives than any guy ought to have.

Bob Crosby, in addition to being Bing’s kid brother, was a bandleader in an era when having that job title didn’t necessarily require a lot of musical ability. In Crosby’s case, he played no instrument and had nothing to do with the musical direction of the band. The most important thing he didn’t do was interfere with his players, and their band-within-a-band, The Bobcats, was a gem. It was the only prominent band—modern or square, white or black, commercial or not—that was, as of the late 1930’s, playing early, traditional jazz of the type that was common around 1920. Unlike most white musicians of the Swing era, some of Crosby’s players had serious New Orleans backgrounds, and they all had genuine jazz chops. The Bobcats, being young men, played this traditional material with the then-modern rhythm of swing. and this sort of playing is what became “Dixieland” after World War II: traditional jazz played in a somewhat more modern way. Here’s their 1939 rendition of “March of the Bob Cats”. Eddie Condon, the revival of Chicago Jazz, Pete Fountain, and most of what passes for “New Orleans jazz” today were all made possible by these guys. Underrated at the time, and wholly out of the stream of jazz evolution, this is nonetheless wonderfully authentic and sincere playing.

Perhaps the antithesis of Crosby’s backward-looking Bobcats was Count Basie’s band-within-a-band, The Kansas City 7. Utilizing his rhythm section and three horns—Lester Young’s tenor and clarinet, Buck Clayton’s trumpet, and the trombone of either Eddie Durham or Dickie Wells—Basie created groundbreaking small-group jazz that influenced everything from bebop to cool jazz. On “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” from 1938, Lester Young displays his often-forgotten clarinet skills, and multi-instrumentalist Durham puts down his trombone and plays one of the very first electric guitar solos in jazz history. For the next few years, Basie did about one session a year in this format, and although the personnel changes, they’re all keepers.

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