Three Perfect Minutes

Milestone Recordings in American Music

3/4/12

It’s Been Good to Know You (1940)

The following recordings recount heartache in unassuming yet powerful ways. Although deeply personal, they also conveyed the full depth of despair of a nation grappling with nearly a decade of economic depression.

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1940 Headlines … Great Depression continues … World War II: Germany occupies France, but is repelled by U.K.; tensions rise between Germany and neutral U.S. … First McDonald’s restaurant is founded
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Bukka White
Fixin’ to Die Blues
(Vocalion 05588, 1940)

“Fixin’ to Die Blues” may be Bukka White’s best recording, a powerful, chilling blues that tells the story of a man facing imminent death. White sings in a repetitive style that invokes Memphis gospel, but the rapid tempo and quivering delivery imbue the song with desperation instead of hope, as do the stark lyrics: “Just as sure we live, sure we born to die / I know I was born to die, but I hate to leave my children crying.”

~ You may also like: Bukka White, “Parchman Farm Blues” (Okeh 05683, 1940)

Woody Guthrie
Talking Dust Bowl Blues
(Victor 26619, 1940; Dust Bowl Ballads, Volume 1, Victor P-27, 1940)

Woody Guthrie
Dusty Old Dust (So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh)
(Victor 26622, 1940; Dust Bowl Ballads, Volume 2, Victor P-28, 1940)

Before Woody Guthrie, folk music mostly concerned itself with universal themes or the recounting of old stories or historical events. Considering that the music was used as a means of oral history by poor, rural and often illiterate communities, that is not surprising. With the advent of recorded music and the increasing literacy and urbanization of the nation, Guthrie saw the potential of this simple, straight-forward music to speak to a wider audience and tell more personal, more immediate stories. His voice wasn’t polished, but it was steady and his slow, Oklahoma drawl added credence to his everyman tales. His writing was superb – from his witty, personable lyrics to his knack for simple, catchy melodies. Guthrie’s own career was cut short by Huntington’s disease; he stopped recording in 1956 and finally succumbed to the illness in 1967 at the age of 55. But his legacy looms large and he has been an influence on every folk singer since.

Guthrie used his music to draw attention to issues of importance to him. In 1940, that issue was the plight of farmers affected by the Dust Bowl disaster that had devastated crops throughout the Great Plains. Guthrie recorded 15 songs for Victor, 12 of which were released both as singles and as part of two collected “albums” of three records (six songs) each: Dust Bowl Ballads, Volume 1 and Volume 2.

One of the best tracks is “Talking Dust Bowl Blues” from Volume 1. Guthrie delivers a casual, spoken monologue, brilliantly matching his timing to the guitar accompaniment to make it simultaneously rhythmic and conversational. The performance works on so many levels. The lyrics tell a truly engaging and sympathetic story of man whose farm fails and is forced to “swap [his] farm for a Ford machine” and head to California in search of a better life for his family. And yet the story is far from morose. Guthrie’s charm and wit give the song balance and even allow for some humor to come through, adding warmth to the situation without ever losing sight of the underlying desperation. At the end, he gets in a subtle dig; while talking about how little he and his family have to eat, the narrator says of his supper: “Mighty thin stew, though / You could read a magazine right through it / I always have figured that if it had been just a little bit thinner / Some of these here politicians could have seen through it.”

~ You may also like: Woody Guthrie, “Do Re Mi” (Victor 26620, 1940; Dust Bowl Ballads, Volume 1, Victor P-27, 1940)

Another great recording from Dust Bowl Ballads is “Dusty Old Dust” from Volume 2. A more traditional, straightforward song, it simply and directly recounts how the dust storms “Dusted us over and covered us under.” The song’s chorus, “So long, it’s been good to know you,” carries a dual meaning as people both fled from the dust storms and saw them as the end of the world.

~ You may also like: Woody Guthrie, “I An’t Got No Home in This World Anymore” (Victor 26624, 1940; Dust Bowl Ballads, Volume 2, Victor P-28, 1940)

2/26/12

War! 1940-1944

On December 7, 1940, the Japanese attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, thus “waking the sleeping giant” and drawing the United States into World War II. Although those bombs at Pearl Harbor would be the only ones to fall on American soil during the conflict, the nation was shaken to its core. In the space of a few short years, everything would change, and those changes were reflected in the music.
Like the forgotten artists of the 1920s, a lot of 1930s artists would be left behind. The swing bands would soar to success, becoming the soundtrack of the war years. By the end of the decade, though, the changes to society and a resurgent economy would make large orchestras a thing of the past, and new sounds would be given a chance to flourish.

Technology, which had advanced at a snail’s pace due to the Great Depression for much of the 1930s, was suddenly put into overdrive to feed the war effort. Recording technology would be radically affected by the limitations and technological advancements brought about by the war. With shellac in short supply, record manufacturers would switch to vinyl. Long-playing vinyl “microgroove” records had been experimented with by RCA Victor in the early 1930s, but were discontinued due to the Great Depression. After the war, they were reintroduced by Columbia as 12" records running at 33-1/3 rpm, while RCA Victor introduced 7" vinyl microgroove records running at 45 rpm. Although 10" 78 rpm records (now also made of vinyl) would remain popular for decades, the longer playing time of the new formats opened up new possibilities such as single-disc record albums. (The first albums in the late 1930s had been similar to photo albums: bound collections of sleeves holding individual 78 rpm records.)

Prior to the war, the Germans had invented another recording format: magnetic tape. After Germany was defeated, Americans developed their own uses for the technology, using it first for recording and eventually for consumer playback media.

Technology wasn’t the only cause of changes to American music during the war years, though; society was changing as well. By the end of the war, industrialization had caused a massive population shift from rural to urban areas, and along with this new life came a desire for new sounds, laying the groundwork for electric blues, honky tonk, and rock and roll.

One of the biggest influences on American music during this time, though, was caused not by the war or shifting demographics, but by a disagreement over royalties. In August 1942, a recording ban was put in place by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), preventing many from recording until the strike ended in November 1944. While musicians could still play live shows or radio, the ban created a big gap both in the historical record and in the public consciousness. Because the ban applied only to instrumentalists, not vocalists, many record companies began recording vocal-only music as a way to skirt the issue. Whereas vocalists had always been an afterthought, this had the effect of making them the center of attention. By the time the ban was lifted, the paradigm had changed and big bands, while still popular for a while, would never again dominate the spotlight.

In October 1943, the AFM began allowing instrumentalists to record for special “V-discs,” which were only distributed to military personnel, not the general public. However, many instrumentalists were not captured on record at all during the strike, and so we have no window into the evolutionary process of their music. For example, after the ban ended, a new style of jazz called “bebop” would seemingly come out of nowhere. It had actually been a very organic extension of some trends in small-band swing music, but none of that process was ever recorded.

Like everything else in post-war America, bebop was a sign that nothing would ever be the same.

6/19/11

An Ending and a Beginning (1939)

As the decade drew to an end, 1939 was a light year for the blues in general, but the following two classics are heavy-hitters: a haunting, posthumous Delta ballad and a riveting folk-blues debut.

Robert Johnson
Love in Vain Blues(Vocalion 04630, 1939)

This posthumous single is Johnson’s most lovely recording, and one of the greatest odes to unrequited love in the history of the blues. Like so many blues songs, the story it tells is simple on its surface, but the delivery adds a depth of emotion that words cannot convey. Johnson plays a simple melody and keeps a slow, steady beat on guitar while calmly singing the melancholy lyrics about a departing lover: “When the train rolled up to the station, and I looked her in the eye / Well, I felt lonesome, I was lonesome, and I could not help but cry.” The emotional highpoint comes at the end when Johnson softly wails several wordless lines (save for the name of the departing lover: “Ooo, Willie Mae!”), before ending the song with a matter-of-fact statement: “All my love’s in vain.”

~ You may also like: Robert Johnson, “Kindhearted Woman Blues” (Vocalion 03416, 1937)

Lead Belly
Gallis Pole(Musicraft 227, 1939; Negro Sinful Songs, Musicraft 31, 1939)

John Lomax discovered Huddie Ledbetter while the latter was serving a sentence for attempted murder at the Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana. Ledbetter, who went by the nickname Lead Belly, was a jewel of a find, a gifted singer and twelve-string guitarist with a diverse repertoire of folk and blues songs, many of his own composition. Once out of prison, he began a long recording career that established him as one of the most influential folk singers in history.

“Gallis Pole” is one of his best and most influential early recordings, and would later inspire Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole.” It is a good demonstration of Lead Belly’s ability to interweave spoken and sung parts and evolve lyrical and melodic themes throughout the course of a song. The story itself is fascinating (a jailed man tries to raise enough money to bribe his way out of being executed), and the performance is mesmerizing: a fast, ever-changing rhythm on guitar married to increasingly frantic vocals.

~ You may also like: Lead Belly, “Alberta” (unreleased ARC recording from 1935; Includes Legendary Performances Never Before Released, Fantasy F-24715, 1952)

6/12/11

Vocals in the Spotlight (1939)

The following tracks all share one thing in common: exceptional vocal performances that transcended the expectations of their time. Whether adding vocals to a beloved instrumental, forging a new vocal group style, crafting a timeless classic or breaking the mold for singing cowboys, these recordings are all worth repeated listens.

Larry Clinton and His Orchestra featuring Bea Wain
Deep Purple (Victor 26141, 1939)

Larry Clinton was the first to record the standard “Deep Purple” with lyrics, and the result was one of the loveliest pop singles of the big band era. Much of the credit is due to singer Bea Wain in what may be the most expressive performance of her career. Her voice is simply amazing here, wrapping itself around the lyrics like deep purple silk – soft, billowing and fluid. In the end, neither the music nor the lyrics make a lasting impression: all you remember is that luxurious voice.

~ You may also like: Bea Wain, “Kiss the Boys Goodbye” (Victor 27445, 1941)

The Ink Spots
If I Didn’t Care(Decca 2286, 1939)

The Ink Spots
My Prayer(Decca 2790, 1939)

The Ink Spots were the first of what would become a tradition of African American vocal groups that would set the stage for doo-wop in the 1950s and soul in the 1960s. Building on earlier vocal traditions, including the novelty “jive” that had become popular among small, jazz-oriented groups, the Ink Spots developed their own style of romantic, expressive ballads. These two records from early in their career are great examples of their style.

“If I Didn’t Care” was the group’s first big hit. The wonderful vocals alone would most likely have cemented this in musical history: over light, jazzy accompaniment, tenor Bill Kenny sings in a subtly quivering falsetto over top-notch harmony humming from the others. But the additional touches make this song even more remarkable. The first is a persuasive spoken interlude by bass Orville “Hoppy” Jones, something that would become a trademark for the group and served to “break down the wall” between band and listener, making the song that much more intimate. The second added touch is the remarkably harmonious group scat singing at the very end, which mellows a convention of jazz into something new, accessible and exciting.

~ You may also like: The Ink Spots, “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)” (Decca 3379, 1940)

“My Prayer” is even lovelier than its predecessor, an unabashedly sentimental record that takes full advantage of the group’s dreamy harmonies. Once again, Hoppy Jones gives a spoken interlude, but instead of introducing something new, he merely repeats the lyrics from the first verse, underlining their importance: “My prayer is to linger with you / At the end of each day in a dream that’s divine / My prayer is a rapture in blue / With the world far away and your lips close to mine.”

~ You may also like: The Ink Spots, “Java Jive” (Decca 3432, 1940)

Judy Garland
Over the Rainbow(Decca 2672, 1939)

There was a distinctiveness to the way that Judy Garland annunciated sounds, as if the song within was bursting through and it was all her mouth could do to sculpt it into words as it passed by. Her big, bright voice on “Over the Rainbow” is even more remarkable when you consider that she was only sixteen when she recorded it. Taken from 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, both song and film have endured as timeless classics. Garland would star in several more hit Hollywood musicals, but she would never top the inspirational performance she gives on this record.

~ You may also like: Walter Huston, “September Song” (Brunswick 8272, 1938)

Gene Autry
Back in the Saddle Again(Vocalion 05080, 1939)

Gene Autry began his career as a straightforward country singer, but he would soon become Hollywood’s number-one singing cowboy. “Back in the Saddle Again” is his signature song and a great example of why he made such a believable cowboy. His voice is strong and pleasant, but never flashy, and his inviting southern plains accent and everyman delivery are instantly ingratiating. The bouncing, western swing-inspired music gives the record a certain rough-around-the-edges polish, and the lyrics are the kind of fun, lighthearted cowboy material that audiences ate up: “I’m back in the saddle again / Out where a friend is a friend / Where the longhorn cattle feed on the lowly gypsum weed / Back in the saddle again.”

~ You may also like: Gene Autry, “The Last Round-up” (Banner 32886, 1933)

6/5/11

Jazz Evolving (1939)

In 1939, big band jazz was making its mark on the American musical landscape, but jazz had not decided to sit still. Out of the limelight, jazz artists were continuing to push boundaries, as they had done from the beginning. The following tracks show the result of some of that innovation and the hints of things to come.

Coleman Hawkins
Body and Soul(Bluebird B-10523, 1939)

Recorded as an afterthought, “Body and Soul” is a sublime masterpiece and the single greatest accomplishment of Coleman Hawkins’ distinguished career. The song was already a pop standard, and remains so, but Hawkins’ performance is far from definitive, having less to do with the song itself than with the style and mood of his playing. With minimal accompaniment, Hawkins’ tenor saxophone paints a picture as revolutionary for the jazz world as Louis Armstrong’s groundbreaking work more than a decade prior. Hawkins follows the harmonic structure of the song perfectly, so that one could easily imagine the lyrics being sung along, but he improvises the melody so much that it is hardly recognizable as the same song. This would become the norm in modern jazz, but it was all but unheard of in 1939. And yet, unlike the harsh, confused reaction that bebop would elicit a few years later, Hawkins’ style is so endearing that this approach is instantly accessible. His soft tone is comforting and his rich improvisation is conducted with a gentle grace so smooth that a listener might be persuaded to think that this was the original melody all along. Even towards the end, when the saxophone squeaks for dramatic effect, it is spellbinding rather than jarring. It is a stunning performance, one that really wouldn’t be matched again until the “cool jazz” movement a decade later.

~ You may also like this stunning, unaccompanied recording: Coleman Hawkins, “Picasso” (Mercury 2073, 1948)

Willie “The Lion” Smith
Echoes of Spring(Commodore 521, 1939)

William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoft Smith, nicknamed “The Lion” because of his bravery while serving in World War I, is one of the giants of the stride piano style, along with James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. His 1939 solo recordings, and particularly “Echoes of Spring,” are considered the high point of his career. “Echoes” is a remarkably light recording, so pleasant that it is easy – at least for a while – to overlook just how talented and sophisticated a pianist Smith was. With a steady, meandering bass line from his left hand, his right hand produces a lovely, tinkling melody on the high notes. About a minute and a half into the song, his right hand gets more adventurous and opens up new perspectives on that melody. Smith even throws in occasional booming, discordant notes that are completely unexpected and yet do nothing to diminish the song’s loveliness.

~ You may also like: Willie “The Lion” Smith, “Finger Buster” (Commodore 521, 1939)

Art Tatum
Tea for Two(Decca 2456, 1939)

“Tea for Two” is Art Tatum’s most enduring recording, a work that manages to dazzle with its display of technical prowess while simultaneously retaining the charm of a lovely ballad. Like Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul,” this record finds the lead improvising greatly, but where Hawkins created an entirely new world out of an old song, Tatum starts with the original melody, drives it into new possibilities with flashes of virtuosity, and then brings it ever so gently back to familiar territory again. In doing so, he creates a perfect framework for his unique talents, an arena where he can show off his abilities – things other pianists just can’t do – while staying grounded and accessible to an audience looking for a more gut-level connection. For one example, listen to the final half-minute, where a fast, free-form improvisation slows into a melodic and sentimental conclusion, while never quite losing its sense of spontaneity and wonder – ultimately resembling, but not quite matching, the original melody.

~ You may also like: Art Tatum, “Willow Weep for Me” (live: April 2, 1949; Gene Norma Presents an Art Tatum Concert, Columbia GL 101, 1952)

Sidney Bechet Quintet
Summertime(Blue Note 6, 1939)

“Summertime,” with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, is one of American music’s most enduring jazz and pop standards, and there are many top-notch renditions of it to chose from. One of the best is undeniably this instrumental Sidney Bechet recording from 1939. Bechet seizes upon the song’s underlying bittersweet tone and brings it to the surface with a soprano sax solo of exquisite depth. He shows great restraint, using the entire length of a 12" single to explore the song in greater detail while slowly building tension throughout. Even when that tension finally spills over into a wailing release, Bechet plays it close to the chest, muffling the volume and turning the emotion back in on itself.

The simple, spare accompaniment makes a wonderful companion to Bechet’s playing. Big Sid Catlett’s drums and John Williams’ bass measure a steady, plodding beat, with the drums becoming noticeably more forceful at times in parallel with Bechet’s playing. Meanwhile, Teddy Bunn’s guitar quietly picks out a bluesy countermelody that further fuels the song’s emotional fire. In all, it is a deeply intimate and beautiful performance and one of the best recordings of Bechet’s distinguished career.

~ You may also like: Tommy Ladnier and His Orchestra featuring Sidney Bechet, “Really the Blues” (Bluebird 10089, 1938)

Billie Holiday
Strange Fruit(Commodore 526, 1939)

I honestly don’t know how Holiday sang this song without getting choked up in the process. Such is the power of her performance that I find myself knotted up with anger and sadness every time I listen to it. The song’s subject matter is the lynching of African Americans throughout the segregated South: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swaying in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” The seemingly naïve lyrics paint an absolutely horrifying picture, and Holiday’s matter-of-fact delivery serves to underscore the heartbreaking sarcasm. Her voice only betrays emotion at the very end, as it rises dramatically to paint the final image of this “strange and bitter crop.”

Although Holiday’s voice is lovely as ever, that loveliness stands in stark contrast to the evil she sings about, and the impact of this reveals the underlying frustration and anger of the entire African American community. Holiday took a lot of criticism for performing such a controversial song, but a more powerful statement against this injustice was never made.

~ You may also like: Billie Holiday, “Gloomy Sunday” (Okeh 6451, 1941)

5/29/11

After a Long Break... (1931-1938)

Hello, everyone. I apologize for the long time with no posts. I have been writing a lot, but mostly for other projects. However, I have slowly been collecting reviews of some great music for you. To begin with, here are a few songs I added to previous entries:
Thank you to fixbutte for introducing me to these recordings!

I have a bunch of new 1939 reviews that I've handwritten, and I will type those up and post them in the coming weeks. And then on to the 1940s...

11/28/10

Glenn Miller (1939)

In 1939, trombonist and bandleader Glenn Miller was struggling to gain recognition and keep his second orchestra together when he landed a regular spot on CBS radio. The national exposure proved invaluable and by the end of the year, Miller’s inviting brand of swing music had made his band one of the most popular in the U.S. While many jazz purists derided the band (and many still do) for its highly polished, highly rehearsed sound, the public absolutely ate it up. Over the next few years, Miller would absolutely dominate the pop charts, earning number-one hit after number-one hit. And while there is no denying that he catered to mainstream tastes, it is hard to argue that his success wasn’t deserved. He led a talented group that created some of the most remarkable records of the era, and he was as innovative in his own way as any other big band leader. As proof, here are some of the earliest and best records from his remarkable career.

Glenn Miller and His Orchestra
Little Brown Jug (Bluebird B-10286,1939)

Of all of Miller’s well-known hits, “Little Brown Jug” may be the one that least follows the Miller formula, sounding very much like something we would expect from Bennie Goodman or Tommy Dorsey. But that does not make it any less brilliant. Miller’s trademark precision is here in spades as the band moves like a well-oiled machine to play the main theme and back up the soloists. As a case in point, note the dramatic build-up between the first and second solos: a riff repeated three times by the ensemble, followed by a held-note crescendo by the trumpets, and then even greater urgency as the trombones join in. The solos sound very melodic and rehearsed, but they are also full of energy and backed by a driving drum beat, and the song never sinks into predictability even as it remains danceable to the end.

~ You may also like: Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, “Anvil Chorus” (Bluebird B-10982, 1941)

Glenn Miller and His Orchestra
In the Mood (Bluebird B-10416,1939)

“In the Mood” is Miller’s most enduring hit, a fast-paced number that is both lullaby soft and irresistibly energetic. After a brief but noteworthy intro, the full orchestra jumps in and lays down one of the most memorable melodies in big band history. We are then treated to some soloing that expounds upon the theme in exciting ways without departing from it. But the most exciting part comes when the full orchestra returns. Once again, they play the main melody, but this time they play it softer and softer, with drawn-out pauses between each iterance. Finally, after one such pause, they return to full volume and build up to a glorious finale.

~ You may also like: Glenn Miller and His Orchestra featuring Ray Eberle, “Stairway to the Stars” (Bluebird B-10276, 1939)

Glenn Miller and His Orchestra
Moonlight Serenade (Bluebird B-10214,1939)

“Moonlight Serenade” was Miller’s breakthrough hit, and little wonder as the song’s gentle melody is so sentimentally sweet that it provides a perfect vessel for whatever strong emotion the listener may be feeling. As the Great Depression wore on and the world headed towards war, “Moonlight Serenade” struck a chord with listeners. Indeed, it is a lovely song and even today is arresting in its simple beauty. The record almost exclusively features ensemble playing, but the highlight is a wonderful, mellow clarinet solo about two-thirds of the way in. With tenor sax playing a subtle, low countermelody in the background, the clarinet soars into the high notes and strips the song to its barest emotion.

~ You may also like the other side of the original single: Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, “Sunrise Serenade” (Bluebird B-10214, 1939)

11/21/10

Inspired Swing (1939)

The following selections show swing music blossoming in terms of both style and substance. These records are among the best of their era for balancing mass commercial appeal and artistic integrity.

In other words, they are really, really good.

Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra
Tuxedo Junction (Bluebird B-10409, 1939)

Glenn Miller had a bigger hit with it in 1940 (Bluebird B-10612), but co-author Erskine Hawkins’ original is the definitive recording of this classic. The song gets its title from the nickname of a jazz club near the band’s hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, but this record transcends any tangible location to create a magical place all its own.

Although Hawkins was a gifted trumpeter (often called “the 20th Century Gabriel”), it was fellow trumpeter Wilbur “Dud” Bascomb that took the memorable solo on this record. An audible wave from Bascomb introduces you to “Tuxedo Junction,” and it’s such a welcoming place, you’ll want to stay awhile. After a relaxed introduction to the band and a hearty hello from Julian Dash on tenor sax, Bascomb returns to show you around. His trumpet solo is both rousing and endearing, filled with genuine warmth and joy. As it ends, one cannot help but feel that the song has passed its high point, and yet Haywood Henry’s clarinet soon proves that notion wrong, enthusiastically showing the listener another side of “Tuxedo Junction” – one that is every bit as captivating. Bascomb returns at the end to wind things down and say goodbye. Trust me, you will want to visit again.

~ You may also like another mellow hit from Hawkins and company, featuring some wonderful piano playing by Avery Parish: Erskine Hawkins and His Orchestra, “After Hours” (Bluebird B-10879, 1940)

Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra
Cherokee(Bluebird B-10373, 1939)

Don’t let the overall smoothness of Charlie Barnet’s “Cherokee” fool you: this band is dangerous. They are razor sharp and full of attitude, and while you may feel enchanted by the irresistible melody, a closer listen reveals that they never stop hitting you. Listen to the way the saxophones strike with short, staccato bursts and the horns repeatedly give a wah-wah whine during the opening solo. The same brash assertiveness continues throughout, with every smooth main melody backed up with saucy attitude from elsewhere in the band. Among the smoother parts, Barnet himself is particularly alluring on tenor sax, with a polished playfulness that touches the line of squeaking dissonance without ever crossing it. This record is a true classic of the genre and an indispensible part of any serious swing music fan’s collection.

~ You may also like: Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra, “Skyliner” (Decca 18659, 1945)

Woody Herman and His Orchestra
(At the) Woodchopper’s Ball(Decca 2440, 1939)

“Woodchopper’s Ball” was Woody Herman’s triumph, a flawlessly executed record that sizzles excitingly throughout while going down soothingly smooth. The uptempo blues is almost a head arrangement built around a simple riff, but a high degree of coordination between the instruments yields an extra-polished finish. The solos are gems and each is given a good deal of time to develop: clarinet, trombone, tenor sax, trumpet, and finally a duet between piano and bass. The record built up a following slowly, but eventually became Herman’s biggest hit and – deservedly – vaulted him into superstar status.

~ You may also like: Chick Webb and His Orchestra, “Let’s Get Together” (Columbia 2883-D, 1934)

Benny Goodman and His Orchestra featuring Martha Tilton
And the Angels Sing (Victor 26170, 1939)

“And the Angels Sing” was the biggest hit of Martha Tilton’s career and another huge hit for Goodman. Tilton’s plush voice is heavenly, to be sure, and benefits from terrific lyrics by Johnny Mercer: “You smile and the angels sing / And though it’s just a gentle murmur at the start / We kiss and the angels sing / And leave their music ringing in my heart.” If you listen closely as she sings, “You smile,” you can actually hear her smile in a wonderful bit of showmanship. But Tilton’s singing is only half the story. The orchestra itself provides tight accompaniment throughout the first half, and once the vocals end, Ziggy Elman (who wrote the music) bursts free with a tremendous trumpet solo. It begins with a fast, Yiddish-inspired dance interlude over a driving march beat, and then slows suddenly to end as a soaring, inspiring jazz solo as the full orchestra sweeps back in behind him. As heavenly as Tilton was, it is Elman’s trumpet at the end that truly represents the angels singing.

~ You may also like: Benny Goodman and His Orchestra featuring Helen Ward, “Goody Goody” (Victor 25245, 1936)

11/14/10

More Bonus Material (1931-1939)

As promised, I continued working my way through this blog to add suggestions for further listening to all of the entries. I previously completed the entries from 1890-1930, and I have now completed all of them through my last 1939 entry. Every recording I have written about now has an italicized entry at the end that says "You might also like..."

For example, you'll still find an entry for "Song of India" by Tommy Dorsey (Victor 25523, 1937) just as before, with a brief description of the reasons why it is a milestone recording (Bunny Berigan's trumpet solo, for starters). In addition, at the end of that description, you'll now find this recommendation:

~ You may also like yet some more of Berigan’s best: Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra, “Troubled” (Victor 24834, 1935)

There is no further detail given about the new recording; it's just a teaser to encourage you to further explore some great music. And while these new recommendations didn't make my final cut for full reviews, that's only because I had to draw the line somewhere. They are definitely worthwhile!

So if you've read those earlier entries already, you might want to go back and check them out again. Meanwhile, I will continue adding new entries and suggested further listening as time permits. I have a few more recordings from 1939 to cover, and then on to the 1940s!

10/11/10

Lester Leaps In (1939)

Lester Young had an incredibly productive year with Basie’s band in 1939, including some of his most classic performances on tenor sax. The following selections show him at his peak of creativity, and playing with band mates like Basie who perfectly complemented his easy going style.

Count Basie and His Orchestra
Taxi War Dance (Vocalion 4748, 1939)

In “Taxi War Dance,” Basie’s orchestra strips the big band swing format down to a bare minimum of complexity, and then builds it back into something transcendent by sole virtue of their talent – especially that of the amazing Lester Young. At its core, the song is nothing but a “head arrangement” – a brief riff repeated against a driving rhythm. What transforms this simple structure into pure magic are the memorable solos that fill the remaining spaces. The record begins with Basie introducing the fast pace on piano and then some taut riffing by the full orchestra, but just seconds into it everything but the rhythm section fades away and Young steps in with a breezy tenor sax solo that completely changes the song’s feel. The band riffs again and Dickie Wells picks up where Young left off with a remarkably agile display on trombone. Then we are treated to a series of brief riffs followed by short, highly inventive improvisations that each defy expectations and create something fresh and new. In the hands of lesser musicians, an arrangement like “Taxi War Dance” could be flat and repetitive, but as played on this record, it is marvelous.

~ You may also like: Count Basie and His Orchestra, “9:20 Special” (Okeh 6244, 1941)

Count Basie’s Kansas City Seven
Lester Leaps In (Vocalion 5118, 1939)

“Lester Leaps In” was written by Lester Young based on George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” Like the band’s other head arrangements, it features improvised solos built around a central riff, but where we might expect more of the band’s usual free-for-all virtuosity, this record is a study in minimalism. There are only two soloists – Basie on piano and Young on tenor sax – and they take turns seeing who can play the most with the least. Both show considerable flash at times, but they are even more brilliant in their use of space.

Young is clearly the main focus. His playing is fluid yet very laid-back, and he frequently plays around with the rhythm, delaying an expected note by a fraction, or pauses all together, trailing off where one might expect more fireworks. Basie’s approach, as might be expected, is even sparer, sometimes playing only a couple of quiet notes at a time. Despite the sparseness of his playing, or perhaps because of it, the record is bursting with energy from start to finish. The rhythm section is lively and keeps the beat going even when the melody disappears. And the occasional heat generated by the band (led by Buck Clayton’s prominent trumpet) and soloists leave you eagerly anticipating more.

~ You may also like: Count Basie and His Orchestra, “Tickle Toe” (Columbia 35521, 1940)

Count Basie and His Orchestra
Jive at Five (Decca 2922, 1939)

This classic is one of Basie’s best and the ultimate chill-out swing record, a relaxed jam built around a very simple riff. The band plays very tight, very spare snippets: at one point, the riff consists of just two tense notes, just enough to keep it going during the solos. Dickie Wells is prominent with a repeated casual growl on trombone, and the rhythm section keeps things bouncing steadily, especially Jo Jones’ light but firm touch on drums. Meanwhile, the soloists take turns playing smooth, comfortable choruses, and all are magic: Lester Young especially shines with an ethereal performance on tenor sax. He is followed by Harry Eddison on trumpet, Basie on piano, Jack Washington on baritone sax and Dickie Wells on trombone. The records fades sleepily to a close guided by Wells’ trombone.

~ You may also like the 1938 small group recordings of Basie’s sidemen (recording without the Count for contractual reasons), including this number featuring Lester Young on both tenor sax and clarinet, as well as Eddie Durham with a groundbreaking performance on electric guitar: Kansas City Six, “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” (Commodore 512, 1938)

10/3/10

Hot Ditches Sweet and Has a Swinging Night Out with the Blues (1938-1939)

As pleasant and popular as “sweet” music could be, sometimes jazz and boogie woogie artists simply had to let loose and show what they were capable of. And thank God for that.

Count Basie and His Orchestra
Jumping at the Woodside (Decca 2212, 1938)

Set to an incredibly fast, eight-to-the-bar beat, “Jumping at the Woodside” is pure Kansas City energy through and through. It is also riotously fun, a bluesy romp that must have sent dancers into a frenzy. The solos come fast and furious and each one is a keeper. A stomping opener from Basie on piano is followed by a wailing flurry from Earl Warren on alto sax and then back to Basie again for some of his trademark, spare but genius piano playing. We then get an assertive blast and wonderful solo from Buck Clayton’s muted trumpet and a honking but perfectly fluid tenor sax solo from Lester Young that sounds like rock and roll come two decades early. Finally, a fiery, take-no-prisoners turn on clarinet from Herschel Evans ends the record in amazing fashion.

~ You may also like: Count Basie and His Orchestra featuring Jimmy Rushing, “Swingin’ the Blues” (Decca 1880, 1938)

Count Basie and His Orchestra featuring Jimmy Rushing
Sent for You Yesterday (And Here You Come Today) (Decca 1880, 1938)

Songs with vocals tend to be primarily a showcase for the singer, but someone forgot to tell that the Basie band on this record. It’s not that Jimmy Rushing doesn’t give a strong performance: “Sent for You Yesterday” is a great example of his potent vocal presence. But Rushing is limited to a single verse, and the band impatiently taps its toe the entire time he’s singing, stirring noticeably after every line. Before Rushing even enters, the band has firmly entrenched itself in hot blues with some call-and-response playing featuring Earl Warren’s floating alto sax, Basie’s tinkling piano and some growling, muted trombones. And Herschel Evans has already played an absolutely gorgeous, full-bodied chorus on tenor sax. As soon as Rushing is finished, the instruments immediately kick up the energy again and let out all the stops, first with a rousing call to action from Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpet and then wailing in unison while drummer Jo Jones bangs away furiously in response.

~ You may also like: Count Basie and His Orchestra featuring Jimmy Rushing, “Goin’ to Chicago Blues” (Okeh 6244, 1941)

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1939 Headlines … Great Depression continues … World War II begins with German attack on Poland; U.K., France, others declare war on Germany; U.S. neutral … The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind films premier
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Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson
Roll ‘Em Pete (Vocalion 4607, 1939)

Pete Johnson helped kick start the national boogie woogie craze in a series of concerts with fellow pianists Meade “Lux” Lewis and Albert Ammons beginning in 1938. “Roll ‘Em Pete” is a good example of his playing and also features commanding vocals from Joe Turner, who would go on to become one of the most popular blues “shouters” of the post-war “jump blues” scene. Johnson’s playing is solid throughout and his solo in the middle is very entertaining. While he is not as flashy as Lewis or Ammons, he plays with a real feel for the blues and provides perfect accompaniment for Turner’s boisterous but highly disciplined voice. Turner is really amazing, singing each line at the top of his lungs and yet with amazing clarity and control: “Well, you so beautiful, but you gotta die someday / All I want is lovin’, babe, give before you pass away!” Together, the two men create one of the not-to-be-missed blues performances of the 1930s.

~ You may also like: Albert Ammons and His Rhythm Kings, “Boogie Woogie Stomp” (Decca 749, 1936)

9/26/10

The Marriage of Hot and Sweet (1938)

From the very beginning, jazz fans described the music as being either “hot” (with lots of improvisation and variation) or “sweet” (with highly arranged structure and a focus on the main melody). Of course, these terms are not mutually exclusive; both can be found in the same recording, and the rise of big band swing made it increasingly possible to blend the two approaches, taking a tight, basically “sweet” arrangement and adding fiery solos or other exciting “hot” touches. As the following selections show, some bands did this very, very well.

Benny Goodman and His Orchestra
Don’t Be That Way(Victor 25792, 1938)

Forget Benny Goodman’s legendary concert at Carnegie Hall: his greatest legacy from 1938 is this flawless recording. The song had been written by Chick Webb’s alto sax player Edgar Sampson, and Webb had a hit with it in 1935 (Decca 483). That version is phenomenal, but Goodman’s is immortal. Where Webb and company played the song fast and razor-sharp, Goodman’s band set a somewhat slower pace that allowed them to polish it into a rounder, fuller sound. The entire band is in top form, and every instrument sounds simultaneously spicy and sweet. Goodman himself leads the way with one of his best performances on clarinet, three separate solos that lure listeners in with soft tones then hook them with pointed playing that is no less rich. Solos by Harry James on trumpet and Vernon Brown on trombone are also quite good, as is the playing of Jess Stacy on piano and Gene Krupa on drums. This record is more than just a series of individual performances, though, as the ensemble playing is also extremely tight and enjoyable. Just listen to the opening section with the woodwinds playing the same melody octaves apart while the brass instruments add short, staccato accents. Or the way the entire band repeats the theme over and over again at the end, softer and softer until Krupa brings the volume back up with a machine-gun burst of drumming. Classic.

~ You may also like: Benny Goodman and His Orchestra featuring Peggy Lee, “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)” (Okeh 6474, 1941)

Artie Shaw and His Orchestra
Begin the Beguine(Bluebird B-7746, 1938)

The great Artie Shaw was perhaps the only clarinetist of the big band era that could come close to Benny Goodman’s pure, sweet tone. Shaw’s band certainly challenged Goodman’s in popularity as well, and while they tended to have a very polished, sweeter style, they were also very talented and not afraid to experiment. Their rendition of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” was their first big hit, and it remains one of the most recognizable and delightful gems from the period. (For the record, a “beguine” is a kind of Caribbean dance and is pronounced the same as “begin.”) It is highly arranged, and the solos by Shaw and saxophonist Tony Pastor do little more than express the main melody, but there are just enough “hot” elements to keep it swinging. Most of that is thanks to Shaw himself who adds wonderful, improvised touches in all the right places, including a sliding crescendo that ends the song on a high note.

~ You may also like: Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five, “Summit Ridge Drive” (Victor 26763, 1940)

Artie Shaw and His Orchestra featuring Billie Holiday
Any Old Time(Bluebird B-7759, 1938)

In 1938, Billie Holiday joined Artie Shaw, becoming one of the first African American singers to be featured in a white band. It was a match made in heaven, but unfortunately the extreme racism she faced while touring the South soon made her leave the group. “Any Old Time” was the only recording she made with Shaw, giving us only a hint of what could have been. The band plays beautifully, and Tony Pastor’s solo on tenor sax, while not adventurous, is notable for its marvelously rich tone. But, of course, it is Holiday who steals the show with a performance that rides effortlessly on the gorgeous melody, and yet reaches beyond it thanks to her multidimensional voice. Given Holiday’s incredible versatility, it is revelatory to hear her sing something so straightforward and so joyously pure.

~ You may also like: Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra featuring Billie Holiday, “These Foolish Things” (Brunswick 7699, 1936)

Red Norvo and His Orchestra featuring Mildred Bailey

Please Be Kind (Brunswick 8088, 1938)

Vibraphonist Red Norvo led a compotent, popular big band and had several hit records. He is most known for his excellent work with his wife, singer Mildred Bailey, which earned the couple the nickname “Mr. and Mrs. Jazz.” Bailey was a large woman, but she had a voice that floated as if it had angel wings. She was one of the most popular singers of her day, and her voice remains one of the loveliest in pop music history.

“Please be Kind” is a great example. It is a light record, with superbly sweet playing that keeps the song enjoyable without calling too much attention to itself. That leaves more of the spotlight for Bailey, who doesn’t disappoint. With a voice so pure that it embodies innocence, she sings: “This is my first affair / So please be kind / Handle my heart with care / Oh, please be kind!” The record was a major hit, and while it may not be the most technically impressive thing Bailey ever sang, it is so lovely that you can’t help being dazzled by it.

~ You may also like: Mildred Bailey and Her Orchestra, “Rockin’ Chair” (Vocalion 3553, 1937)

Larry Clinton and His Orchestra featuring Bea Wain
My Reverie(Victor 26006, 1938)

Larry Clinton enjoyed much success on the charts, both as a bandleader and as an arranger for others, but his greatest accomplishments came during the two-year tenure of vocalist Bea Wain. “My Reverie” was Clinton’s first #1 under his own name and beautifully displays what has made Wain a favorite among big band-era singers. The first half of the song is a lovely instrumental, a pop adaptation of the classical piano piece “Rêvierie” by Claude Debussy. It is pleasant, pure pop, far removed from “hot” jazz.

Wain’s voice, however, is a multidimensional wonder that works on a purely pop level while providing the kind of expressive depth and fluid sense of swing that characterized the best jazz singers. From the moment she begins to sing, everything else is all but irrelevant and her enchanting voice becomes the song. Listen to the ground she covers in just one line: “Without you, life will never begin to be.” Such power in “without” and “begin,” yet such restraint in “you” and “be.” She is behind the beat in the beginning and yet races ahead of it in the end, only to slow down and find her place again. And throughout it all, the timbre of her voice shimmers and evolves, moving from weighty to light-as-a-feather.

Unlike Billie holiday or Frank Sinatra, Wain’s career did not extend beyond World War II into the era when singers became more well-known than band leaders, so she is not as well known today. But for those who appreciate pure, perfect singing, she is one to look for.

~ You may also like: Larry Clinton and His Orchestra featuring Bea Wain, “Heart and Soul” (Victor 26046, 1938)

Count Basie and His Orchestra
Blue and Sentimental(Decca 1965, 1938)

This is a great example of how a record can sound soft and “sweet” and yet still feel unpredictably “hot” and exciting. While Lester Young is the better known of the band’s two star tenor sax players, this record is a showcase for Herschel Evans. Evans sets the tone early playing a slow, bluesy solo that fits the song’s title to a T. Other band members then contribute their own bluesy solos: Basie on piano, Ed Lewis on muted trumpet and Lester Young playing clarinet. All of the solos are highly enjoyable, and when the full band enters during the end of Young’s clarinet solo, it adds an almost overwhelming sense of depth and power. Evans then returns on sax while the band continues to play, and as they fade back into the background, Evans’ tender touch brings the record to a beautiful close. Unfortunately, Evans’ greatest moment would be one of his last, as he would die from a heart problem early the next year, just one month shy of his 30th birthday.

~ You may also like: Count Basie and His Orchestra featuring Helen Humes, “If I Could Be with You One Hour Tonight” (Vocalion 4748, 1939)

9/19/10

Other Swing (1938)

While the dance-floor sound of big bands like those of Benny Goodman and Chick Webb was rapidly becoming the standard for swing music, there was still a great deal of flexibility in the form. The following selections show some of the interesting variety that one could find in jazz in 1938, featuring everything from Gypsy strings to 1920s-style small group jazz.

Le Quintette du Hot Club de France
Minor Swing (Swing 23, 1938)

Here is another amazing record from Europe’s top jazz band, featuring the incomparable Django Reinhardt on guitar and Stéphane Grappelli on violin. Songs played in a minor key tend to generate dramatic tension – an increased sense of seriousness or somberness. This one, played in the A-minor harmonic key, is no different, but rather than creating an uneasy mood, the band channels that tension into a feeling of exotic uncertainty. The talented musicians keep things upbeat and swinging even while they leave the listener wondering what’s next. From the opening bars, the record plays with our expectations. Grappelli plays a brief intro that is followed by a single note from the bass that seems to be going somewhere, but instead simply fades to nothing. Where we would expect the full band to enter, we instead find ourselves back at the beginning. Grappelli repeats his intro and then we are finally off and running.

Reinhardt takes the first solo, a dexterous, unpredictable turn that starts with some melodic, single-string slide playing and ends abruptly on a discordant note. At that point, Grappelli returns for his own solo (with Reinhardt continuing to add little touches in the background). Where Reinhardt's Gypsy-style guitar had been mysterious and withdrawn, Grappelli soars with forceful purpose. Someone shouts, “Come on!” in the middle, and Grappelli responds by becoming even more animated. The record ends with a little coda that features some great interaction between Grappelli and bassist Louis Vola, and then someone cries what we’ve all been thinking: “Oh yeah!”

~ You may also like one of the fastest things Reinhardt ever recorded: Le Quintette du Hot Club de France, “Limehouse Blues” (HMV K-7706, 1936)

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
When the Saints Go Marching In (Decca 2230, 1938)

In the tradition of New Orleans funeral processions, Armstrong recorded this gospel song set to jazz. It proved immensely popular and has been covered so often that today it is the first song that comes to most listeners’ minds when they think of New Orleans jazz. Like much of Louis Armstrong’s 1930s output, “When the Saints Go Marching In” is more a showcase for his butter-on-burnt-toast vocals that for his trumpet playing, but he does end the song with a rousing solo that reminds us of his talent on that instrument. The other solos are taken by J.C. Higginbotham on trombone (twice) and Charlie Holmes on alto sax, and they have a distinctly Dixieland feel, as opposed to the swinging big band tone of the rest of the record. The lyrics are very simple, but Armstrong’s distinct voice is enjoyable to listen to, as are his spoken asides (“Blow, brother Holmes!”) and the backup singers’ responses (“Marching in!”). This is joyous music, plain and simple. It may not be deep, but it is perfect for singing along.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, “I Double Dare You” (Decca 1636, 1938)

Eddie Condon and His Windy City Seven
Ja-Da(Commodore 500, 1938)

Eddie Condon was a seminal figure in the Chicago jazz scene in the 1920s, playing with the likes of Bix Beiderbecke, Gene Krupa, Jack Teagarden and Frank Teschemacher. He was a solid but not remarkable banjoist and guitarist, but his true gift was organizing top notch players into exceptional ensembles. After moving to New York in 1928, Condon broke down barriers by organizing interracial recording sessions with some of the top African-American artists of the day, including Henry “Red” Allen, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller. In the late ‘30s he assembled just such an interracial band that included some of New York’s finest musicians, and they would produce the best work of Condon’s career, including the lovely “Ja-Da.”

Although the swing era was already in full swing, Condon didn’t forget the older style of jazz he had played in the ‘20s in Chicago, and blended elements of it into swing to create his own unique sound. “Ja-Da” begins with some slow, old-style polyphony, with Bobby Hackett’s cornet carrying the lazy main melody while George Brunies and Pee Wee Russell add countermelodies on trombone and clarinet, respectively. Jess Stacy’s piano punctuates this and the rest of the song with spare, percussive notes that create a delicious contrast to the otherwise languid pace. After the opening section, Bud Freeman takes a long, mellow solo on tenor sax then Hackett returns to do the same on cornet. Mid-way through his solo, the accompaniment drops away and Hackett’s playing becomes much more forceful and staccato for a few bars before sliding back into mellow, dreamy territory. A brief solo by Russell on clarinet and a moment of soaring polyphony by the entire band bring the song to a close. This was the closest ting to Louis Armstrong’s groundbreaking Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions being made in 1938.

~ You may also like an earlier side featuring Condon on banjo and vocals, Frank Teschemacher on clarinet and a young Gene Krupa on drums: Eddie Condon Quartet, “(Back Home Again In) Indiana” (Parlophone R-2932, 1928)

9/12/10

Letting It All Out (1938)

The following selections cover a wide variety of styles (jazz, blues, country) and moods (playful, impassioned, sinister, melancholy), but they share an emphasis on spare arrangements with deeply relatable vocals. These records foreshadow the coming shift to the singer-centric recordings that would take over popular music after World War II, and they lay the groundwork for the fundamental changes that would create all new styles like honky tonk and rock and roll.

Slim & Slam
The Flat Foot Floogee (Vocalion 4021, 1938)

As this record comes to an end, Bulee “Slim” Gaillard and Leroy “Slam” Stewart can be heard commenting on what they’ve just performed and one of them remarks, “That’s a killer!” A better review could not be found. “The Flat Foot Floogee” (originally titled “The Flat Fleet Floogee”) is a remarkably swinging record, and yet freely breaks from the usual trappings of swing music. The duo’s singing is firmly rooted in the “jive” style exemplified by Cab Calloway, and like Calloway they pepper the record with seemingly nonsensical phrases that actually have meaning to them. (“Floogee” was supposed to stand for “floozy,” and “floy floy” was slang for “venereal disease.”) The song is perfectly enjoyable – maybe even more so – without knowing this, however, and indeed much of the singing really is nonsensical scatting.

Unlike Calloway, Gaillard and Stewart’s style is much more laid back in its delivery. Adding to the relaxed feel is the small-group accompaniment – guitar, bass, piano and drums – which is mostly just used to provide a steady rhythm during the first minute of the song. The instruments occasionally pipe up to add emphasis during this part, but most of the work is done by the vocalists, with one of the duo singing and the other either singing along or behaving like an instrument by scatting in the background.

The second part of the song features two outstanding solos. The first is by Stewart, who was a master of the bowed bass. What makes the performance even more remarkable is the way he hums along, voicing the same melody an octave apart from his playing. The second solo is by Gaillard, whose main instrument was the guitar, but played many instruments. Here he plays the vibes, and both vocalists freely comment throughout: “Solid, man!” Both solos retain the laid-back feel of the rest of the song, something that would not be as easy to do in a larger ensemble. While that mellowness and the hipster lyrics make some people dismiss Slim and Slam’s work as novelty or fluff, to do so is a mistake. This is a unique and well-played record that just happens to be immensely entertaining, and it was an influential step on the road to creating jump blues and eventually R&B and rock and roll.

~ You may also like: The Spirits of Rhythm, “My Old Man” (Brunswick 6728, 1933)

Sonny Boy Williamson
Whiskey Head Blues (Bluebird B-7707, 1938)

Part of what I love about Sonny Boy Williamson’s music is the passion of his performances. There is loads of talent there, but his musical ability always takes a backseat to the sheer power of his delivery. “Whiskey Head Blues” is a particularly enjoyable example of this. Guitar and mandolin bounce along sloppily underneath, while Williamson gives a soulful, spellbinding performance. At times, it sounds like he’s not even trying to make a record, he’s just wailing (with his harmonica as well as his voice) and lamenting his lover’s drunken ways: “Well, now every time I see you, you’s at some whiskey joint / Standin’ at the back door, askin’ for another half a pint.” Of course, Williamson’s genius is that he pushes the boundaries just far enough, keeping the music jagged around the edges but never so sharp as to be off-putting. In fact, for blues fans, this is just the opposite: an utterly riveting, essential record.

~ You may also like: Sonny Boy Williamson, “Decoration Blues” (Bluebird B-7665, 1938)

Robert Johnson
Me and the Devil Blues” (take 2) (Vocalion 04108, 1938)

(Note that there were two takes of this song recorded in 1937, and both were released as Vocalion 04108 in 1938. They are very similar, but the second take is the definitive one.)

This song has the most evocative imagery of any in Johnson’s catalog, packing a punch whether they are taken literally or figuratively. The narrator sings of “walking side by side” with the devil and unrepentantly blames his wicked behavior (“I’m gonna beat my woman until I get satisfied”) on “that old evil spirit.” Johnson’s guitar work and voice are as strong as ever, making the lyrics that much more compelling. At the end, he sings: “You may bury my body down by the highway side / So my old evil spirit can get a Greyhound bus and ride.”

Unfortunately, this would be the last of Johnson’s recordings released in his lifetime. In August of 1938, he would be poisoned, apparently by the jealous husband of a woman he flirted with, and would die a few days later at the age of only 27.

~ You may also like: Robert Johnson, “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man” (Vocalion 03723, 1937)

Cliff Bruner’s Texas Wanderers
It Makes No Difference Now (Decca 5604, 1938)

Cliff Bruner was a fiddle player in Milton Brown’s pioneering western swing band until Brown’s untimely death in 1936. Afterwards, Bruner formed his own group, the Texas Wanderers, and experienced a good deal of success on his own. “It Makes No Difference Now” (written by Floyd Tillman) was his biggest hit, and listening to it you will understand why. While it is clearly rooted in western swing, this record reflects a sparer, more intimate style that would directly influence the “honky tonk” music that would come to dominate country music. This is not lively music to dance to, but something to feel in your gut. To use a country music cliché, it was music to cry in your beer to.

The background instrumentation features a crazy swirl of steel guitar (by Bob Dunn) and piano (by Aubrey “Moon” Mullican), but the emphasis is placed firmly on Dickie McBride’s melancholy, baritone vocals and Leo Raley’s striking electric mandolin. Both of these are slow and deliberate, making the listener pay attention to the narrator’s tale of a recently ended love affair: “Now that we have really parted, I can’t believe we’re through / I don’t blame myself, and I’m sure I can’t blame you.” It is a simple, direct and flawlessly executed performance, and one that every honky-tonk fan should know.

~ You may also like one of pianist Moon Mullican’s turn on vocals: Cliff Bruner’s Texas Wanderers, “Truck Driver’s Blues” (Decca 5725, 1939)

9/5/10

Epic Swing (1937-1938)

Benny Goodman’s monumental recording of “Sing, Sing, Sing” was a watershed moment in American popular music, one that redefined the scope of jazz and further cemented swing as the sound of the nation. But Goodman weas not alone, as artists like Chick Webb and Raymond Scott were also pushing boundaries and making big band music that was every bit as ground breaking and compelling.

The Raymond Scott Quintette
Twilight in Turkey(Master MA 108, 1937)

Raymond Scott’s off-beat recordings are familiar to most people from the soundtracks of many classic 1940s Looney Tunes cartoons, where their frenetic energy and unexpected sounds fit in perfectly with the on-screen zaniness. His records were not originally made for that medium, however, and they are just as enjoyable on their own. “Twilight in Turkey,” for example, is a kinetic masterpiece with an uptempo beat that is carried by a variety of different percussion instruments, including at one point some finger cymbals. Meanwhile, the orchestra plays just as fast, their playing punctuated by frequent whining growls from a muted trumpet and several bizarre interludes – everything from an exotic-sounding Oriental dance to a dizzy saxophone solo to a confused, discordant clarinet. Somehow it all works and the end result stands as some of the most inventive jazz of its time.

~ You may also like: The Raymond Scott Quintette, “Powerhouse” (Master MA 111, 1937)

Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra
For Dancers Only(Decca 1340, 1937)

At his best, such as on “For Dancers Only,” Jimmie Lunceford created swinging records that rival the best work of better-remembered bandleaders like Goodman, Ellington and Basie. The genius of Lunceford’s band was the way it moved seamlessly as if a single entity, while still sounding loose and fresh. Except for two noteworthy solos, the instruments here stick close to the main melodic theme, but they make the most of that framework with colorful tone and a phenomenal arrangement by Sy Oliver. The two solos are highly creative and memorable: a spare turn on tenor sax by Joe Thomas that ends with “laughing” tremolo and a high, rallying cry of a trumpet solo by Tommy Stevenson that must have driven dancers crazy with excitement. This record should be on any swing music fan’s short list.

~ You may also like: Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra, “Lunceford Special” (Columbia 38338, 1939)

Benny Goodman and His Orchestra
Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)(Victor 36205, 1937)

While limited to just over three minutes per side on a standard, 10-inch 78 RPM record, many jazz bands would stretch songs out much longer in live performances. In 1937, Goodman and his band recreated this in the studio, creating an epic eight-and-a-half minute recording that filled both sides of a 12-inch record (the split coming in the middle of an extended drum solo), a format usually reserved for classical music. That recording of Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” was a game-changer and has continued to be one of the most recognized jazz records in history.

Right from the start, Gene Krupa’s drums command the listener’s attention with a propulsive intro. As the rest of the band joins in, it turns into an enjoyable, fairly straight-forward swing number with excellent arrangement by Jimmy Mundy and a hot clarinet solo by Goodman. But Krupa’s drums never go away; underneath the melody, he’s still banging out that rhythm like a man possessed, and when all of the other instruments suddenly disappear just before the two-minute mark, you realize that this is not going to be your average swing number after all.

Those drums are unstoppable, and every time the orchestra stops, Krupa bangs and bangs until he summons them back, sometimes en masse and sometimes one instrument at a time. Some of the best moments are the free form solos taken by Vido Musso on tenor sax and Goodman on clarinet against just that drum beat. Especially thrilling, though, are the full-orchestra moments in the second half, where the band seems to be rushing recklessly forward, barely able to control itself, pushed forward by that incessant drum beat. When the song finally comes to a sudden end, if you’ve been paying attention, you should find yourself out of breath!

~ You may also like any of the music from Goodman’s legendary 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, which featured an even longer version of “Sing, Sing, Singas well as this superb performance: Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, “One O’Clock Jump” (live: January 16, 1938; The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert, Columbia SL 160, 1950)

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1938 Headlines … Great Depression continues … Superman debuts in Action Comics #1 … Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio hoax causes panic through eastern U.S. … Holocaust begins in Germany
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Chick Webb and His Orchestra
Harlem Congo (Decca 1681, 1938)

One cannot say enough about how talented Chick Webb’s band was. Before their leader’s untimely death in 1939, no other band in new York could touch them. “Harlem Congo” is a perfect example of their prowess, a performance as fast-paced and lively as the city it represents. The whole band is phenomenal, but special attention goes to Taft Jordan’s show-stopping work on trumpet and Chauncey Haughton’s solo on clarinet, which starts ridiculously high and fast before taking a whirling plummet downward. And lest anyone forget who the best drummer in the business is, Webb settles the argument with a final drum solo that pulls out all the stops. When he is finished, the rest of the band returns for a slow, sweet coda as if taking a well-deserved bow after such a dazzling performance.

~ You may also like another display of Webb’s tremendous talent on drums: Chick Webb and His Orchestra, “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)” (Decca 1840, 1938)

Chick Webb and His Orchestra featuring Ella Fitzgerald
A-Tisket A-Tasket(Decca 1840, 1938)

As if his band wasn’t already talented enough, Webb had the good fortune to discover a talented teenage singer named Ella Fitzgerald in 1935, and she was soon accompanying the band on performances and in the studio. Although she was an awkward “diamond in the rough” at first, as Webb put it, she would go on to establish herself as one of the all-time premier singers in jazz and popular song.

“A-Tisket A-Tasket” was her break-through hit with the band, with lyrics updated by Fitzgerald from a popular nursery rhyme. Those lyrics would be forgettable in lesser hands, but Fitzgerald’s vocal control and innate sense of swing allows her to transcend their silliness and turn in a thoroughly riveting performance. She delivers the lines sincerely and yet not without a playful wink, especially when she banters back and forth with the band: “(Was it green?) No, no, no, no / (Was it blue?) No, no, no, no / (Was it red?) No, no, no, no / Just a little yellow basket!” The band’s playing is highly arranged to provide the perfect background for the vocalist, but the lack of their usual “hot” soloing does not turn out to be a disadvantage. Try to listen to this song once paying attention only to the instruments, and you will hear a flawless blend of heavenly sweetness and lively energy that is as impressive as anything in their catalog.

“A-Tisket A-Tasket” proved such a monstrous hit that it helped propel the band to a new level of fame. Unfortunately, Webb himself would die the following year at age 34 following a lifetime of health problems, and it would be up to Fitzgerald to carry on as bandleader.

~ You may also like: Chick Webb and His Orchestra featuring Ella Fitzgerald, “Undecided” (Decca 2323, 1939)

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