The Rise and Fall of Popular Music
[A polemical history]
The Early Years of Jazz
Jazz has been described as the first American art form. It is characterized by self-expression; the performer is both composer and troubadour. Jazz belonged to its performers, and would develop as their abilities and needs demanded.
The word was also spelled 'jass'. Some think it came from the French jaser (to converse, perhaps indiscreetly); attempts to trace the word back to Africa have been inconclusive. It was used in print as early as 1909 in reference to dancing, and in 1913 about US Army musicians who were 'trained on ragtime and "jazz"' (Oxford English Dictionary). Clarence Williams claimed to be first to use the word on sheet music around 1915, when he described 'Brown Skin, Who You For?' as 'Jazz Song': 'I don't exactly remember where the words came from, but I heard a lady say it to me when we were playin' some music. "Oh, jazz me, baby," she said.' It was assumed to have sexual connotations; song titles such as 'Jazz Me Blues', 'Jazzin' Babies Blues' were common. The word has been used of any jazz-influenced popular music, from the time of Paul Whiteman, 'King of Jazz', to the 'jazz rock' or 'jazz funk' of recent times, and today has so many connotations that many young musicians will not use it.
The purest origins of jazz are lost in ancient history, but more scholarship is now being done than ever before. We are too much the prisoners of our received knowledge; we are taught that Columbus discovered America, and we get the impression that he discovered that the world is round. But some people believe that the Irish visited North America even before the Vikings, and many educated people knew that the world was round before 1492. There was trade between Africans and South-east Asia as early as 1000 AD, which is thought to be how xylophone-like instruments got to Africa. We are taught that polyphonic music was invented in Europe, but the musical development that took place then was inspired by musics from other places. The moresca, an African fertility dance performed with small bells on the costumes, spread to Europe, where its rhythm is found in Monteverdi's Orfeo; Shakespeare referred to 'a Morris for May Day' in As You Like It, and the morris dance was revived in England around 1900, probably because the English thought they invented it. Similarly, jazz was not a discovery, but a rediscovery of musical values which in some parts of the world had never been lost.
Samuel A. Floyd, Jr, editor of Chicago's Black Music Research Journal, has defined black music as 'that which reflects and expresses essentials of the Afro-American experience in the United States'. To a great extent the mainstream music business had co-opted minstrelsy and ragtime, making fads of these musics with no respect for their black input. But in the case of jazz, helped by recordings and broadcasting, the beauty, honesty and joy in the music belonged to its creators. Airchecks (off-the-air recordings) from the 1930s and 1940s are always of interest since we can hear jazz musicians trying and sometimes failing to get their message across; even the classic Benny Goodman band of the late 1930s, a precise and well-drilled outfit, sounded somehow more exciting on the bandstand than it did in the studio, because it was communicating to a human audience rather than recording a commercial product. And the jam sessions and cutting contests, which have now disappeared, were never as successful as money-spinning enterprises as they were in their original late-night informal atmosphere, where the competition and invention were untrammelled. It is thanks to this aspect of direct communication between musicians and their listeners that jazz conquered the world, and remained at the root of twentieth-century popular music.
Jazz has evolved, as any art form must, encountering resistance at every step of the way. But it is not true that it was not taken seriously in the USA; perceptive writing on the subject began there in the 1920s. Conspiracy theories about the suppression of jazz were once spread by the American far left, which tried to co-opt jazz (as it did folk music) as a music of the oppressed for political reasons, following a decision by the Communist Internationale in 1928 to define jazz as a proletarian music. It was already too late for that nonsense, and in any case the so-called socialist countries then disapproved of jazz for decades on the grounds that it was an example of western decadence. Great black jazz men and women did not receive the recognition or the money they deserved because of racism, but by the time the music reached Chicago, white businessmen were recording the musicians and singers and hiring them to perform for enthusiastic white audiences. The Melrose brothers, Walter and Lester, ran a music store in Chicago and were involved in jazz and blues in that city at an early stage; they became powerful music publishers as a result, and copyrighted many of the early compositions. The Lincoln Gardens, where King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band played in the early 1920s, was visited by the best white dance band musicians, who knew where the good music was, while white kids (Chicago jazzmen of the next generation) sat on the curb outside because they were too young to get in. When we were growing up, we Americans were taught that Europeans appreciated our music more than we did, while we took it for granted; Europeans were first to compile discographies, but we could take it for granted because it was so popular in America.
It is true that the white entrepreneurs often tried to water down the music, yet it survived and remained honest, becoming popular and influential around the world. There have been countless first-rate white jazz musicians, but the great innovators (advancing the music's stylistic frontier) were almost all black, a situation that may now be becoming an historical one: jazz, or 'improvised music', or just 'the music', now has so many streams that it has become a repertory music and a viable international genre. But it is also true that many Americans hear little or no jazz today, because broadcasting and major record labels in the USA have been turned over entirely to tone-deaf lawyers and accountants, who are interested only in easy money.
Jazz quickly spread all over America, but New Orleans was the most important incubator because of its location. Ragtime and the call-and-response pattern of work songs were vital ingredients. African-Americans had retained an astonishing amount of their African heritage for generations, mainly because slaves had not been allowed to take part in American culture. But Louisiana slave-owners, who were French-speaking Catholics rather than Anglo-Saxon Protestants, did not try to forbid slaves to play music and dance as strictly as owners in other areas did. New Orleans was a seaport, so that influences came in from the Caribbean, and it had an easier racial atmosphere than the rest of the South, at least until the First World War. And while every town in the USA had a brass band, New Orleans had them in every neighbourhood.
[We take for granted a connection with Africa, even if it is difficult to pin down, but Swedish scholar and musician Gunnar Lindren also postulates a connection with the Arab cultures of North Africa. Many of the slaves in the former Spanish possessions, especially in the Caribbean, had brought traces of Arabic musical culture with them, and (again, in Catholic countries) were allowed to retain more of their own cultural heritage, and in turn had their influence on New Orleans. Lindgren's tantalising essay is here.]
It has long since become a cliché that jazz bands played hymns for funerals on the way to the graveyard, and on the way back celebrated the life of the departed, with tunes such as 'Oh, Didn't He Ramble' and 'When the Saints Go Marching In'. Just as important was the New Orleans 'second line'. The mourners were joined by anybody who happened to be nearby; they preceeded the band down the road, marching and dancing along and enjoying the music. The second line is still important in New Orleans clubs today, as the dancers and ringside fans have been important in the whole history of the music: the communication extends beyond mere entertainment.
The blues (like the other American rural music, now called country music) began as a folk music, but jazz was never folk music. From the beginning there was a formal content. New Orleans clarinettist Paul 'Polo' Barnes said to British journalist Max Jones in 1973, 'You see, in ragtime music they had books and ... you just had to read that music, and when you read it you were reading another man's idea ... We played ragtime, but we couldn't read. And we played a different ragtime from those reading musicians who actually played it. We put our own version in there.' But Barnes also said that Buddy Bolden, one of the first jazzmen, played 'the way he feel the music go. So traditional jazz is really that: you play your feelings.' There was also a difference between the better-off Creoles and the 'uptown' blacks who had recently been slaves. Clarinettist Albert Nicholas was a Creole, from a musical family, and there were musical instruments at home; he knew Louis Armstrong when they were children, but Louis came from a much harder background. The Creole and uptown players 'all played together in the brass bands ... Those were mixed bands, Creole and uptown. In a brass band they were solid.' But the Creoles also had their own dance bands, 'and your uptown ... sounded a little different, more gut-bucket'. The musical influence was two-way: the self-taught musician wanted to learn to play 'straight', while musicians in marching and concert bands were proud of their ability to read and to play either straight or 'ragtime', using crying tones, slurred notes and so forth. The early jazz standard 'Fidgety Feet' was a syncopated march.
Alderman Joseph Story set aside a neighbourhood for brothels and gambling in 1897, known as the District, or Storyville; but at the beginning of the First World War Storyville was closed by order of the US Navy. While pianists found their work in bars and brothels, and bands played mostly at picnics, funerals and in the street, musicians also worked in dance halls and on riverboats. The closure of Storyville accelerated travel to the West Coast and especially up the Mississippi, to Chicago, and thence to New York City. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the 'up the river from New Orleans' version of jazz history, as long as it is understood that jazz was being played all over the country. New Orleans was where many of the best musicians came from, and they followed the work.
The most famous riverboat bandleader was Fate Marable, born in Kentucky. He played piano and calliope, and first worked on a boat at the age of seventeen with a white violinist (Emil Flindt, who wrote 'The Waltz You Saved for Me'). Marable, who was not a jazzman, formed his own band in 1917 and worked for the Streckfus line out of St Louis until 1940. He made only one recording, in 1924, which is not highly rated. But no leader ever hired more talent: the list of sidemen who played with Marable begins with Henry 'Red' Allen, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Blanton and Earl Bostic and continues through the alphabet. Young people who heard the music up and down the river were impressed; pianist Jess Stacy remembered hearing a Marable band with Armstrong, Baby Dodds and Johnny Dodds.
Pianist and vocalist Tony Jackson, who wrote 'Pretty Baby', and cornettist and bandleader Charles 'Buddy' Bolden probably formed links between ragtime and jazz; neither ever recorded. Bolden was renowned for his tone and his strength -- it was said he could be heard clear across Lake Pontchartrain -- but he was committed to a hospital in 1907 and never emerged. Cornettist Freddie Keppard took his Original Creole Orchestra to California in 1914 and caused a sensation, playing a new ragtime music called 'jass', a 'white-tie, all musical act, with neither blackface minstrel clowning, nor even verbal comedy', according to Rudi Blesh. Keppard's band appeared in Chicago in 1915, as did Tom Brown's Band from Dixieland, called a jazz band at a time when any new, lively dance music was already known as jazz. There is a story that the local musicians' union, which resented the competition of out-of-town outfits like Brown's, spread the word that it was nothing but a 'jazz' band, and that this backfired and helped Brown's business. Keppard was allegedly offered a chance to record for Victor late in 1916, but turned it down, afraid that other people would steal his material; he recorded only once as a leader, in Chicago in 1926. The excellent trumpeter Doc Cheatham said Keppard sounded like 'a military trumpeter playing jazz'.
Early jazz history was confused by the fact that the first jazz recordings were made by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a white band from New Orleans that won great acclaim at Reisenweber's Restaurant in New York. Cornettist Nick LaRocca, clarinettist Larry Shields, trombonist Eddie Edwards, drummer Tony Sbarbaro and pianist Henry Ragas recorded Keppard's 'Livery Stable Blues' early in 1917 for Victor; they also recorded for Columbia and made obsolescent vertical-cut records for Aeolian Vocalion the same year, but most of their recordings were for Victor. They later caused the same sensation in London, with a slightly different personnel. The recordings were regarded as novelties, and did much to establish the public's view of jazz as a noisy party music. LaRocca copyrighted 'Tiger Rag' (their biggest hit), 'Fidgety Feet' and other New Orleans classics, and in an interview with Leonard Feather in 1936 claimed that white musicians had invented jazz and taught it to the blacks. By then the whole world knew better than that.
Spikes' Seven Pods of Pepper, with Edward 'Kid' Ory on trombone and cornet player Thomas 'Papa Mutt' Carey, recorded in Los Angeles in 1922, but the New Orleans style was best captured by King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in 1923, recording in Chicago and Richmond, Indiana, for the Gennett, Paramount. Okeh and Columbia labels with a New Orleans lineup.
The front line of the band included Oliver on lead cornet, Louis Armstrong on second cornet, Johnny Dodds on clarinet and Honore Dutrey on trombone; Lillian Hardin played piano, Bill Johnson, Arthur 'Bud' Scott or Johnny St Cyr banjo and Warren 'Baby' Dodds drums. Stump Evans on C-melody saxophone or Charlie Jackson on bass saxophone were added on some tracks. The cornets carried the melody, the clarinet added a filigree commentary on it and the trombone played a bass line or 'tailgate' style (so called because in New Orleans the trombonist sat on the tailgate of the wagon so as not to knock anyone's hat off with his slide). In fact, this was collective improvisation, with everybody listening to everybody else: an improvised counterpoint. The acoustic recording process restricted Baby Dodds to using woodblocks instead of his drum kit, but the records still sound surprisingly good, and they preserved the style in the nick of time. The band swings madly or lopes easily, sometimes seeming to do both at once. (A 2-CD set on the Off The Record label in 2006 produced by Doug Benson and David Sager compiled all 41 recordings in transfers which are by some distance the best that had ever been done until then.)
'Dipper Mouth Blues' and 'High Society Rag' probably sold well enough to have been national hits, had charts existed at the time. Oliver would allow only a bucket of sugared water on the bandstand for refreshment, hence 'Dipper Mouth Blues' (which became 'Sugar Foot Stomp' a few years later). In 'High Society Rag' the harmony between Johnny Dodds's clarinet and the leader's cornet is exquisitely beautiful, harmony in jazz always being coloured by the personal sound of each musician; and Dodds gives us the famous solo on the tune that was originated by Alphonse Picou. In performance and on record Oliver and Armstrong astonished everyone by playing breaks together in harmony that were apparently improvised; years later Armstrong revealed that Oliver would show him the fingering secretly just before each break.
The concatenation of historical events often poses mysteries. Why did recorded sound come along just in time to capture a great American musician like Oliver, one of the fathers of popular music? Or perhaps there is an illusion here, created by recorded sound itself. We will never know what Frank Johnson's music sounded like (mentioned in chapter two), because he lived before the phonograph; but, according to contemporary newspaper accounts, his bugle, in a piece called 'Philadelphia Fireman's Quadrille' of around 1840, could be heard to cry 'Fire! Fire!' Joe 'King' Oliver succeeded Bolden as the leading cornettist in New Orleans, and the vocal-like colour that emerged from his horn was one of the things that made it so deeply moving. His playing was marked by subtlety, unlike that of the 'ragtimers' or of contemporary white musicians, and its dignified melancholy reminds us of the importance of the blues in jazz. Oliver was the principal influence on Louis Armstrong, and the way he growled through his cornet was immediately influential: trumpeter Bill Coleman heard a musician called Nassau doing it in Cincinnati in 1923, Bubber Miley did it in the Duke Ellington band a few years later, and it became an element in that band's sound, and hence in all of jazz.
Oliver played in Chicago and on the West Coast, and then returned to Chicago, where he led the band at the Lincoln Gardens that made the classic recordings. He recorded two duets with Jelly Roll Morton in 1924, which were not very successful; from 1926 to 1928 he recorded around forty sides (including alternative takes) with the Dixie Syncopators, a band whose personnel often changed. The lineup included Ory on trombone, Buster Bailey, Omer Simeon and Albert Nicholas on reeds, Luis Russell on piano and Lawson Buford on tuba. By now the original style was already mutating: more of the music was arranged and there was more solo space and less counterpoint. In my opinion Dixie Syncopator recordings such as 'Farewell Blues', 'Every Tub', 'Willie the Weeper' and 'Someday Sweetheart' are among the most heartbreakingly beautiful ever made, in any genre, by anybody.
In 1927 Oliver moved to New York, and his career began to decline. His music was already being regarded as old-fashioned; he made superb recordings for Victor from 1929 to 1931, but could not play on them all because his teeth were going bad. His nephew Dave Nelson played trumpet on some of them, and many other good sidemen were included. Oliver later ran a fruit stall and worked in a pool room, while collectors were already paying good prices for second-hand copies of his records; if he had lived a little longer he would have been lionized by the revivalists who re-created the New Orleans style just before the Second World War.
The Red Onion Jazz Babies, a pick-up group put together for recordings only, recorded in 1924. It included reedmen Bailey and Sidney Bechet, and vocals by Alberta Hunter; the recordings are probably the best examples we have of how the bands probably played in the bars and dance halls of New Orleans. In 1923 Clarence Williams's Blue Five made similar classics with his wife Eva Taylor singing, Armstrong, Bechet, Charlie Irvis on trombone and Williams instead of Lil Hardin on piano.
Clarence Williams was part Creole Negro and part Choctaw Indian; he grew up in a hotel in Louisiana and ran away from home to join a minstrel show. Inspired by Tony Jackson, he ran a cabaret in New Orleans in 1913, began writing songs and formed a publishing company. He went to Chicago and then New York, where he was the first New Orleans musician to influence others there, and the first publisher to help black musicians. He organized and participated in countless recording sessions, helping the careers of scores of black jazzmen and blues singers. He wrote words and/or music for 'Baby Won't You Please Come Home', 'Royal Garden Blues' and other jazz classics.
As Ben Harney claimed to have invented ragtime for commercial reasons, so Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have invented jazz in 1902 (he gave various dates), but with somewhat more justification: a comparison of his recording of Joplin's 'Original Rags' (made in 1939) with Joplin's sheet music provides a good illustration of the difference between the genres. Anybody can practice for years and learn to play Scott Joplin well, but nobody else sounded like Jelly Roll. He must have been one of the first to play the new style.
He was born Ferdinand Joseph Lemott in New Orleans in 1890, but he always gave a birthdate of 1885 to add weight to his claim to have invented jazz. His Creole family (of Haitian descent) had never been slaves; his godmother disowned him when she discovered he was playing piano in brothels. One of the most flamboyant characters in the history of jazz (not to say big-mouthed -- the urbane Duke Ellington despised him), he got by as an entertainer, a pimp, a gambler and a pool shark. He recorded piano solos and with small bands during the acoustic era; his several sides with the white New Orleans Rhythm Kings in Chicago in 1923 were probably the first interracial recording session. The piano solos include the first recording of 'King Porter Stomp', still a hit twenty years later in the Swing Era. Tracks such as 'New Orleans Joys' (also known as 'New Orleans Blues'), 'Tia Juana' and 'Mamanita' are the first to show what he called his 'Spanish tinge': a habañera rhythm, which is ingrained in New Orleans music, and played over a rock-steady beat results in a tension still to be heard in New Orleans rhythm and blues decades later.
From 1926 to 1930 Morton made nearly ninety sides (including alternative takes) with a studio group of varying personnel, called Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers. He was not only a fine pianist but an incomparable composer and arranger in his neo-New Orleans style; as well as occasional corny humour, virtually all of these recordings present much finely judged and beautiful music. 'Black Bottom Stomp', 'Original Jelly Roll Blues' and 'Grandpa's Spells' are all from 1927 and all with Ory; 'Wolverine Blues' was made the next year with Johnny Dodds. One high point was a 1928 session that produced 'Boogaboo', 'Georgia Swing' and others, including a trio 'Shreveport Stomp', with Simeon's beautiful, liquid clarinet and Tommy Benford on drums, and a quartet 'Mournful Serenade', with Simeon, Benford and Geechie Fields on trombone. During the Peppers period Morton, like Oliver, moved to New York and began to decline. He recorded again in 1939: a dozen fine piano solos including his version of Joplin's 'Original Rags'. Among his best-known recordings are those made for Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress; his playing, singing and talking are a priceless source of information about early jazz.
Sidney Bechet was a New Orleans clarinettist of unsurpassed lyricism, and had a famous wide vibrato. His recording career was peripatetic -- he had a volatile temperament and never stayed long in one place -- but he was nevertheless influential. He played with Freddie Keppard as a child and later with Clarence Williams, plugging songs. He went to New York, where in 1919 he joined the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, led by Will Marion Cook, and travelled with it to Europe. Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet heard this band and wrote: 'I wish to declaim the name of this artist of genius, because for my part, I will never forget it: it is Sidney Bechet ... who is so happy that you like what he does, but does not know how to speak of his art, save to say that he is following his "own way" ... perhaps the great road that the whole world will be swept along tomorrow.' Bechet bought a straight soprano saxophone in London and thenceforth concentrated on that difficult instrument, the only jazzman to do so until Steve Lacy and John Coltrane, decades later; he continued to play clarinet, especially on recordings.
Bechet performed with Williams in 1923, Armstrong in 1924 and briefly with Duke Ellington in 1925 in New York; he gave lessons to young Johnny Hodges, and played with Oliver in 1926. He led the New Orleans Feetwarmers with trumpeter Tommy Ladnier and recorded for Victor in 1932, but times were so bad that he and Ladnier ran a tailor shop. He recorded with various small groups for Victor until 1941 and for Blue Note in 1939; the Port of Harlem Jazzmen session included 'Summertime' and 'Blues for Tommy'. He moved to France in 1949, where he became a national hero. His most famous tunes were 'Les Oignons', recorded in France in 1949 with bandleader and clarinettist Claude Luter, and 'Petite Fleur', which was an international pop hit for a British trad band in 1959.
The musician who set the music world on its ear as the first and greatest soloist in recorded jazz, later becoming one of the best-known and best-loved entertainers in the world, was Louis Armstrong (known as Dippermouth, then Satchelmouth, then Satchmo, but always Pops). He came from utter poverty in New Orleans. Early in 1913 Armstrong was sent to the Home for Colored Waifs after firing a pistol in the air on the previous Fourth of July; there he learned to play the cornet. He played in Marable's riverboat band, and back in New Orleans replaced Oliver in Kid Ory's band. Oliver sent for him and in mid-1922 he went to Chicago to play second cornet in Oliver's band.
Louis gave different versions of his arrival in Chicago: there was no one to meet him, and he took a cab to the Lincoln Gardens, where Oliver was playing; or Oliver had tipped off a porter, who took Louis to the right place. It seems to be agreed that he was a 'hick' when he got off the train, and looked it. Having been a hungry child, he loved to eat; he was overweight and all his clothes were too small. Furthermore, he was in awe of Oliver, and lacked self-confidence; but he was always a first-rate musician. Oliver's band did not need two cornets. The music it played was beautiful, but stylized, and Louis stayed in the background because that is what the music demanded. When he can be heard on the recordings of the Creole Jazz Band, it is clear that he is already doing something that the others are not: he is swinging more freely. The earliest jazz musicians were still ragtimers, inventing a style that came out of the brass band tradition, while the three most important and influential of the New Orleans natives, Morton, Bechet and Armstrong, were deeply familiar with the blues, and with the music of the brothels and dance halls. They took jazz to its first peak of creative freedom.
Lil Hardin, the band's pianist, became Armstrong's second wife. She was a formally trained musician from Memphis, Tennessee, and urged Louis to think of himself as a soloist. He left Oliver in 1924, and was hired to play third trumpet by Fletcher Henderson, who remembered him from a 1922 tour to New Orleans with Ethel Waters. Henderson's orchestra was then becoming a hot dance band in New York, and Louis set it alight. He was still a hick, wearing high-button shoes, and he reported later that the drummer Kaiser Marshall said to him at a rehearsal, 'Man, you come up here with them policeman shoes on?' On one occasion when he played something too loud, he had his own opportunity to make the band laugh: upon being reminded that the marking in the music was 'pp', he is supposed to have said, 'Oh, I thought that meant "pound plenty"!' But nobody laughed at his solos, which were revelatory: music in New York was transformed. Henderson's men drank too much, and sometimes played sloppily, Louis later said. After a year he left.
He returned to Chicago and worked with Lil in her band, but in November 1925 he began making his famous Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings with studio groups, using the new electrical recording process. It is hard for us now to imagine how these records must have astonished musicians hearing them for the first time.
The Hot Five included Ory, Johnny Dodds, Johnny St Cyr on banjo and Lil on piano. They made thirty-three sides in about two years. Maturing as an artist and leaving behind the collective improvisation of the New Orleans style, Louis began doing it all himself: with complete mastery he demonstrated all the self-expression possible in jazz at the time. His tone was clear, accurate and beautiful; he was the first to improvise freely in the lower registers of the instrument; his technical skill allowed him to place notes as he wished, bending a note or placing emphasis within it, and playing around the beat. Swing was part of the essence of jazz from the beginning, but Louis fully understood the importance of playing free from the ground beat. He could swing the entire group himself. As an improvising melodist, he went further than anyone in recomposing a song. He did not invent the stop-time chorus (in which the band just marks the time each one or two bars, leaving the soloist to do as he wishes), but he was the first to take complete advantage of that freedom. His solos were perfectly constructed, yet obviously improvised in their ebullience. He sang the same way: he seemed to have invented scat singing (wordless, improvised, swinging nonsense syllables) since he did that too with such abandon. Among the Hot Five's best recordings were 'Cornet Chop Suey' (whose roots lay in the virtuoso solos that were always a part of brass band music), 'Heebie Jeebies' (for the scat singing) and 'Hotter Than That' (for a fine series of solo choruses).
During the Hot Five series he changed permanently from cornet to the brighter trumpet. For the Hot Seven recordings Pete Briggs (tuba) and Baby Dodds (drums) were added and John Thomas replaced Ory on trombone. 'Wild Man Blues', 'Gully Low Blues' and 'Potato Head Blues' are mostly solos, the last famous for its stop-time chorus. The members of the Hot Seven were drawn from Carroll Dickerson's Savoyagers, who recorded 'Savoyagers' Stomp'; 'Chicago Breakdown' was made by Louis Armstrong and his Stompers, a group that worked in a Chicago cafe: these ten- or eleven-piece bands included Earl Hines on piano.
The Savoy Ballroom Five made eighteen sides in 1928, with no New Orleans players, except Louis and Zutty Singleton on drums, but with Hines, one of the few musicians Armstrong ever worked with who was his equal. Recording director Tommy Rockwell had learned how to use electrical recording, holding Singleton's snare drum above the microphone as he played brushes on the opening bars of 'Muggles'. 'West End Blues' is famous for its perfect architecture and contains the basic elements which would identify some of the best popular music for decades: a well-known introduction, in the nature of an announcement (actually based on phrases Louis had invented while accompanying blues singers), followed by the statement of the theme by the leader and a series of solos, backed harmonically by other members of the band, among them Louis's heartfelt scat singing, seemingly improvised. A classic duet with Hines, 'Weather Bird', shows two very great musicians near their peak.
From 1928 Armstrong fronted larger bands, directed by others, at first the excellent Luis Russell. In his prime at the end of the silent film era he was a top cabaret and theatre entertainer, singing as much as playing and seen as a star by audiences who often cared little about jazz itself. Armstrong frequently played more than a hundred consecutive high notes at the end of hackneyed show-stoppers such as 'Shine' or 'Tiger Rag'; but he always made beautiful recordings. An early example of Lionel Hampton's vibraphone may be heard on 'Memories of You' (1930); in 1931 the hits included a classic version of 'Stardust', as well as 'All of Me', and 'The Peanut Vendor'. 'Body and Soul' (1932) shows Armstrong's beautiful muted trumpet to advantage, while 'Rockin' Chair' was a vocal duet with the song's composer, Hoagy Carmichael. All these were made for Okeh and then Columbia, and are thus the property of Sony today; among his recordings for Victor in late 1932 and 1933 are medleys on an early attempt at a long-playing record. In 1935 he signed with Jack Kapp's new Decca label, with which he stayed for twenty years. On Decca he recorded with the Mills Brothers, Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald; towards the end of that period he was often accompanied by Gordon Jenkins and his studio orchestra.
Armstrong always suffered from insecurity due to racism and the extreme poverty of his youth. He was managed at first by Rockwell, and then by Johnny Collins, a small-time gangster. Sometimes booked 365 nights a year, and never having acquired a proper embouchure, he developed a chronic lip problem. In 1933 he went to Europe, where he was idolized and had a rest. Not content with stealing from Armstrong, Collins abandoned him in London without his passport. Louis had not forgotten Oliver's advice, to find himself a white man who would put his hand on his shoulder and say, 'This is my nigger.' He put his affairs in the hands of Joe Glaser, a playboy who then became a successful booking agent. Glaser was a ruthless businessman, but he understood the value of the property he controlled, and even travelled with the band in the early years. Armstrong began appearing in better films, for example Pennies From Heaven (1936); he made more than fifty altogether, and finally had financial security.
Armstrong's big bands were sometimes merely competent, for their only purpose was to back him, and there is some evidence that he did not want to compete with musicians who might be his equal. Jazz fans were disappointed by his emphasis on entertainment, but Louis was grateful to his public and always gave full measure. In a famous remark he said that his favourite band was Guy Lombardo's, his point being that Lombardo's 'sweet' band was reliable and musically impeccable. Armstrong's pop records are charming. As a soloist he continued to innovate long after 1930, too good a musician to stop creating; a 1938 broadcast aircheck with Fats Waller, Bud Freeman and Jack Teagarden (with Bob Spergel on guitar, Pete Peterson on bass and George Wettling on drums, the correct personnel only nailed down many years later) is priceless for Louis's singing of the introduction to 'Jeepers Creepers' alone.
At the end of the Swing Era in the late 1940s Armstrong gave up the big band and thereafter toured with a small group. We will come back to Louis later, but it is worth noting here that many Americans, on reading his obituaries in 1971, were surprised to discover that the world-famous entertainer had been one of the most influential musicians of the twentieth century.
Swing can be said to begin with Armstrong. None had such complete mastery as he of the manipulation of time in performance, according to the performer's skill, personality and mood, and the nature of the song or tune. Many other factors might enter the equation, such as how long it had been since the last square meal, or the last fight with the spouse. By the time the Swing or Big Band Era began in 1935 the word 'swing' was in common use; earlier musicians had spoken of 'getting off' or 'taking a Boston', and a swinging ensemble was 'in the groove'. Sometimes it happened, sometimes not: the band had to be in the mood. There are stories about Armstrong or Waller being asked what swing was, and replying, 'If you don't know what it is, don't mess with it', or 'If you gotta ask, you'll never know.' A medium tempo that is easy to dance to is best for swinging, pace the popular conception of loud, fast 'killer dillers'.
Blacks were said to have 'natural rhythm', but the truth is more interesting than easy racial stereotyping. To begin with, as we have seen, African-Americans had maintained the aspect of music as a means of social intercourse as well as of self-expression from Africa, aspects that had been played down in European music. Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin were great improvisers, unlike today's concert pianists. Classical music can swing, if everybody is in the groove, but nothing has put more people off classical music than second-rate performances, and a great performance is a matter of genius interpreting the written notes, while the separation of composition from performance has meant that classical music has been losing a source of inspiration for two centuries.
Secondly, blacks in America had less to lose from self-expression, while hundreds of years of European Protestantism on top of three thousand years of Aristotelian consciousness had left whites somewhat restrained. Slaves in America were often not allowed to learn to read; dependent upon the spoken word for communication, they were forced to live in the present, which is where you have to be to manipulate time, while many whites felt guilty about the past or anxious about the future, and lived anywhere but in the present. Finally, as we have seen, rhythm is at the centre of African music (rather than melody or harmony, as in other musics). The performer who is swinging is commenting on the beat, which is somewhere else; swing is thus a polyrhythmic phenomenon. One way to describe jazz is to say that in the performer's improvisations the rhythmic element works additional magic on the melodic and the harmonic.
Soon enough, arrangers and composers would learn to write music that would swing, if the right people were playing it and everybody was in the mood. A good comparison is provided by Fletcher Henderson's two recordings of the Fats Waller tune 'Stealin' Apples'. The first, delightful version was made in March 1936, at a session when 'Blue Lou', 'Christopher Columbus' and 'Grand Terrace Swing' were also recorded. The second, eighteen months later, was made by a band with almost completely different personnel, and in a series of sessions that included mostly pop ballads (among them a setting of Joyce Kilmer's sentimental poem 'Trees'). The second version is workmanlike, but the band's heart is not in it, and Henderson's piano introduction is unusually stiff. A more modern example is found in two recordings of Thelonious Monk's 'Hackensack', made in London in 1971. In the second Monk re-enters in the wrong place after Art Blakey's drum solo, intentionally or not, and stays there. The result is recognizably Monk's tune, but sounds like something that might have been invented by any cocktail pianist.
White musicians learned quickly. Jews and Italians were especially prominent among white jazz musicians of the 1920s, while in Britain a considerable number of jazz musicians have been Scottish. (Benny Carter, whose European band of the 1930s included Scots, said it was because 'wherever they are, there's happiness'.) Before long many white musicians were influencing blacks, and combining technical skill, good tone and harmonic adventurousness. Many years later cornettist Rex Stewart spoke in an interview about the first time he heard Bix Beiderbecke.
Doc Cheatham put it this way: 'All trumpet players had been playing alike when Bix came along and opened the gate.' Leon Bix Beiderbecke became a distorted legend after his death from alcoholism; a book and a film were loosely based on the life of the 'young man with a horn'. Born in Davenport, Iowa, he began learning piano at the age of three. His brother brought home records such as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's 'Tiger Rag'; Bix slowed down the turntable so that he could pick out the cornet part on the piano, and soon took up the cornet. He performed in Chicago and on Lake Michigan excursion boats as a teenager, and joined a band called the Wolverines in 1923. He made his first recordings the following year and became the earliest white jazz musician to have a considerable influence on everybody else.
He continued studying piano, and was the first important jazzman to be inspired by contemporary classical music. But in later life he hated to perform as a pianist in public. In the modern harmonies of impressionist composers he heard the same freedom as in jazz, but he would have needed more formal training and more personal discipline than he possessed to develop it. Yet what he did was miraculous. It was with Bix's solos, and the more fully realized composition of Duke Ellington, that jazz began to absorb other influences and put them to work in the late 1920s.
Bix's technique was unorthodox and he never learned to read music well, but his intonation was perfect. He had a faultless ear, a gorgeous tone and so perfect an attack that contemporaries said each note sounded like a chime struck by a mallet. He knew little about the blues, but he was a lyrical, linear soloist. Unlike Armstrong, he avoided bravura; he experimented harmonically from the start, but, like Armstrong, was a natural melodist. He was among the first to play solo for thirty-two bars using logically compatible phrases, recomposing as he went along rather than improvising close to the melody, and building on phrases he had just invented in a previous bar. James Lincoln Collier described 'a humility in his playing, a humbleness toward his art. Always he is saying, I do not wish to intrude, but let me show you this marvel. And marvels they were.'
The Wolverines were not a great band and their recordings were acoustic; Bix's sound has been likened to piercing a curtain of fudge. Yet in good modern transfers the records are not all that bad. On Hoagy Carmichael's recommendation the band played at Indiana University, and it became a sensation on campuses. Bix was hired by bandleader Jean Goldkette, and spent the peak of his career with Paul Whiteman; these were the best white bands of the period. Whiteman was one of the biggest recording stars of the century and his band was admired by everybody in show business, yet even there Bix's marvels stood out. The story that Bix was frustrated by his position in that band is not true. He was at the top of his trade and knew it, and Whiteman kept a chair open for him until the end. Bix's problem was his alcoholism (he had his first breakdown with delirium tremens in 1929), together with his German Protestant background. He sent copies of his records to his family, but they did not even open the parcels. (The same thing happened decades later to Ornette Coleman.) Bix earned the respect and admiration of his peers, and increasingly of the public, but he never had confidence in himself or in the value of his work.
Beiderbecke's best recordings were made with small groups from 1927, led by reedman Frankie Trumbauer, which often included Eddie Lang, Jimmy Dorsey and Adrian Rollini on bass saxophone. The most famous are 'I'm Comin' Virginia' and 'Singin' the Blues'; the latter especially was memorized and played by white and black bands. Bix's impressionistic compositions include 'In the Dark', 'Candlelight', 'Flashes' and 'In a Mist', the last of which he recorded as a piano solo.
His admiration of Armstrong was mutual. Louis allegedly lent Bix his horn so that he could sit in, a thing he rarely, if ever, did for anyone else. Bix influenced Red Nichols and Bobby Hackett, who influenced Roy Eldridge and Miles Davis respectively; Eldridge was in turn the greatest influence on Dizzy Gillespie. There are links between Bix's advanced harmonic thinking and that of Charlie Parker, but the beauty of his tone and his phrasing can stand alone. Carmichael's songs 'Stardust' and 'Skylark' may have been based on Bix's solos; Carmichael carried Bix's mouthpiece in his pocket for the rest of his life.
Other young white players, particularly in Chicago, imitated their black heroes: Oliver, Armstrong and clarinettists Baby Dodds and Jimmie Noone. The late show at the Lincoln Gardens would be attended by the musicians whose own gigs had finished; the teenagers sat on the pavement outside. Bud Freeman wrote many years later that the bouncer at the door would say, 'Well, it looks like the little white boys is out here to get their music lessons.' The white boys soon invented a free-wheeling small-group Chicago style, with solos between orchestral, ragtime-like ensemble passages; there was usually an 'explosion' of sound at a climax just before the repetition of the melody, and a 'clambake' ride-out at the end. With a band of soloists, collective improvisation as it had been practiced in New Orleans receded into the past.
The Chicagoans include the Austin High Gang, so called because some attended Austin High School: Frank Teschemacher on reeds, guitarist Dick McPartland, trumpeter Jimmy McPartland and Bud Freeman on tenor saxophone. Other Chicagoans were singer and kazoo player Red McKenzie, pianist Joe Sullivan, banjoist and guitarist Eddie Condon, Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman. The style may be heard on recordings as early as 1927 by McKenzie and Condon's Chicagoans. Also usually counted as Chicagoans are clarinettist Pee Wee Russell, trumpeters Wingy Manone and Muggsy Spanier and a third Melrose brother, Frank, a pianist who recorded with Manone and Freeman, among others.
The Friar's Society Orchestra became the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and began recording in 1922. This white group included cornet player Paul Mares, clarinettist Leon Roppolo (whose name is often wrongly spelled Rappolo), reedman Eddie Miller (later with Bob Crosby's band), trombonist George Brunis and drummer Ben Pollack (later an important bandleader).
Pee Wee Russell and Bud Freeman were as innovative on their instruments as Beiderbecke on his, playing pretty, thoughtful and original solos while eschewing bravura. Freeman was the first tenor saxophonist to take a fundamentally different direction from Coleman Hawkins, while Russell was an original to the end of his life. Their 'sweet' jazz may have stemmed from the use of the microphone in that they did not have to play loud to be heard in their small groups; their ability to construct solos was always underrated. Freeman's recording sessions with his Summa Cum Laude Orchestra (an octet, with Russell, Max Kaminsky and Eddie Condon) in 1939 probably represent the high point of the Chicago style, especially Freeman's tour de force in 'The Eel'. Muggsy Spanier's Ragtime Band (also an octet, one of whose members was George Brunis, not a great trombonist but a fine accompanist in this style) made sixteen sides the same year, playing with integrity the tunes they had all loved in their youth, including 'Livery Stable Blues' and Spanier's 'Relaxin' at the Touro', a souvenir of his stay in a New Orleans hospital. But that was the end of the era. In later years many of these musicians were submerged by their dixieland identities, making a living playing for middle-aged businessmen in cocktail lounges. Even when record companies in the LP era occasionally wanted them, it was only to rerecord the dixieland chestnuts.
In the mid-1920s on the East Coast cornettist Red Nichols and trombonist Miff Mole came from Paul Whiteman's band to play in each other's small groups, under such names as the Charleston Stompers, Red and Miff's Stompers, Miff Mole and his Molers, Red Nichols and his Five Pennies and so on. Their playing was less rowdy than the Chicagoans, and has been described as a New York style. Nichols was inspired by Beiderbecke, but was thought by some to play and compose in an innovative open-chord way of his own. Mole was one of the first to liberate the trombone from the New Orleans tailgate style. Nichols and Mole split up in 1928 and Nichols's influence was short-lived; in later years he was popular with tourists visiting Las Vegas.
Eddie Lang was born Salvatore Massaro, the son of a banjo- and guitar-maker in south Philadelphia. He virtually invented jazz guitar playing, playing rhythm and solos in an advanced style: he played four-to-the-bar rhythm, often with a newly created chord on each stroke. His solo work sparkled with innovation, and he acquired a deep and genuine feeling for the blues. On some of his duets with black guitarist Lonnie Johnson he was billed as Blind Willie Dunn. He was Bing Crosby's favourite accompanist, and his unexpected early death (from an embolism while having his tonsils out) was as great a loss as that of Bix.
Jack Teagarden came from Texas. He began learning trombone as a child, and developed a method of playing all the notes without the long positions, using his lips rather than the slide. He had perfect pitch and read music well from an early age. He could play as fast as a valve-trombone player, and made the difficult sound easy; he combined his technical proficiency with a deep southern understanding of the blues, so that his rapid execution did not contradict the impression he gave of being completely relaxed. He sang the same way, in a warm baritone drawl. When he reached New York in 1927, he was fully-fledged and caused a sensation. He ended Mole's brief dominance of eastern trombone playing and quickly became close friends with Coleman Hawkins and trombonist Jimmy Harrison, both of whom were in Henderson's band. It is interesting to speculate how different Teagarden's career would have been if he had not been white: would he have joined Henderson? He played on more than a hundred recordings in 1929, but none at all in 1932. In 1933 he signed a five-year contract with Paul Whiteman, and his talent was largely hidden, except in his freelance work. He led a big band in 1938-9 but went broke, and the rest of his recording career was peripatetic. He never played or sang a note that was not instantly recognizable.
Meanwhile, on the East Coast, Eubie Blake, Luckey Roberts, Willie 'the Lion' Smith, James P. Johnson and others had been playing stride piano, a two-fisted style built on ragtime that emphasized a strong beat with tenths in the bass. Territory bands played all over the country, and larger dance bands were learning to swing. The Swing Era itself was not far off.