By February 12, 2013 0 Comments Read More →

Individuality: another swing playlist

To provide audio support for our last post, “Individuality: a lost art, part 3”, here are some more items for your listening pleasure. These tracks will give you a taste of the artists we talked about. As always, click on the song title to hear a sample at, or to buy the music, a tune at a time.

Cab Calloway, who led an African-American band which played little in the way of real jazz, did hire the best musicians. Here, on “Fifteen Minute Intermission”, recorded in 1938, you’ll hear Cab’s typically dominant vocal, with just a brief glimpse of the brilliant Chu Berry on tenor sax.

You can hear the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra here on 1937’s “For Dancers Only”, featuring a short solo from the great alto saxophonist Willie Smith, and a showy, high-note outing from trumpeter Paul Webster. Smith was one of the a triumvirate of alto players who defined that instrument before the advent of modern jazz, along with Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges. The slick arrangement here is by Sy Oliver, who went on to provide his talents to white bands like Glenn Miller’s.

Chick Webb, one of the great show drummers to ever sit behind a big band, led a slick, ensemble-focused band not unlike that of Lunceford’s. In the late 30’s, they were essentially the house band at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, the most famous African-American Swing venue in the country. Here’s a live radio broadcast from 1938, featuring Webb tearing up the drums on “My Wild Irish Rose”.

Next. we listen to Duke Ellington and His (Famous) Orchestra, just before the arrival of Billy Strayhorn, Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster to the band. This is a live broadcast from the Cotton Club in May, 1937. This is a particularly fiery version of “Harlem Speaks”, featuring solos by—in order—Johnny Hodges on alto, Rex Stewart on cornet, Harry Carney on baritone, Joe Nanton on trombone and finally Lawrence Brown on trombone. Note the readily distinguishable styles of Nanton and Brown.

For contrast, here’s Ellington a couple of years later, now with Blanton and Webster in the band, on the wonderfully oblique “Blue Serge”, presented with all of the odd voicings that were Ellington’s hallmark. Stewart plays the melody, followed by a Nanton solo, and finally a brilliant Webster solo backed by trombone trio. Another one of the great moments in 20th century recorded music.

Benny Goodman’s orchestra, which became a huge pop sensation as Swing music suddenly became the thing in 1937, can be heard from November of that year on “Life Goes To A Party”, with solos by Babe Russin on tenor sax, an especially able Goodman on clarinet, Harry James on trumpet, and an out chorus with drummer Gene Krupa driving the band as few others could. It’s hard to get a sense of what this might have been like from old records, but there was a famous battle of the bands at the Savoy around this time, featuring Chick Webb’s Orchestra versus that of Goodman, and Webb’s band positively crushed these white interlopers from downtown. They turned ten thousand people away that night, but for years, everybody in Harlem claimed that they were there to watch Goodman get his ass whupped. Krupa diplomatically said that the better band, and the better drummer, won. It must have been something to see and hear.

As for the piano players we discussed, we’ll start with the source, Earl Hines’ 1928 groundbreaking work on “Fifty Seven Varieties”. Here, Hines breaks the stride and ragtime mold once and for all, showing how the right hand can play single note melodies loosely phrased on top of whatever rhythm the left hand is offering. That left hand, still slightly syncopated in Hines’ conception, was freed by Teddy Wilson, here demonstrating the quintessential 1930’s jazz piano style on “Chinatown, My Chinatown” from 1939. Then we have Art Tatum from the same year, showing off his ridiculous chops and his already gifted ear for harmonic improvisation on “Tea For Two”. Clyde Hart, accompanying trumpeter Roy Eldridge and tenor saxophonist Chu Berry on “Sittin’ In” from 1938, allows us to hear all three of these great artists. The boogie woogie stylings of Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Meade “Lux” Lewis can all be heard on 1939’s “Boogie Woogie Prayer”.

The varied trumpet styles we discussed are illustrated here by several tracks. More Roy Eldridge—here with Teddy Wilson and Chu Berry from 1935 on “Warmin’ Up”—is never a bad thing. Solos are by Buster Bailey on clarinet, Chu Berry again on tenor, Wilson and then Eldridge, at the height of his powers. Buck Clayton displays his dissonant, dark tone on Count Basie’sTopsy” from 1937. Solos are by Clayton, the wholly underrated Jack Washington on baritone and Basie, demonstrating his unique way with a piano, especially the way he uses space to emphasize the rhythm section behind him. The last solo is by Herschel Evans, who shows us why he’s an utterly individualistic player when compared to Lester Young, who is all over the next Basie tune, “Jive At Five, from 1938. Lester solos first, followed by our next trumpet example, Harry “Sweets” Edison, who also wrote this tune. Lester comes back in for four bars, gives way to Basie for a chorus, and finally we hear Jack Washington again on baritone. We can hear Chu Berry once more on trumpeter Hot Lips Page’s great version of “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?” from 1940. Berry takes a great solo, and Page handles the melody and vocal. We heard Rex Stewart with Duke Ellington’s band, and now we need to hear Duke’s other great trumpeter, Cootie Williams. Check out Ellington’s “Concerto for Cootie”—really an instrumental take on “Do Nothin’ ‘Til You Hear From Me”—from 1940. A last trumpeter to marvel at would be Charlie Shavers. In 1944, tenor sax master Coleman Hawkins recorded the earliest version of Dizzy Gillespie’s bop anthem “Salt Peanuts”, and featured the following soloists: Shavers, Ben Webster, Hawkins himself, and a great little out-ro from Shavers.

Our next playlist will touch on the rest of the tenor saxophonists whose styles we mentioned, and the small groups culled from big bands that made so many great recordings in this era Until then, listen up.

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