Milestone Recordings in American Music


Bix (1927)

At this point, if asked to name the greatest cornet/trumpet player in the 1920s, you might think that I would answer Louis Armstrong without hesitation. But no: there would be hesitation. Louis Armstrong had serious competition for that title. Surprisingly, however, it would not come from the jazz hotbed of New Orleans, but from Davenport, Iowa.

Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke’s story is as tragic as it was unlikely. He began recording in 1924 with a small group called the Wolverine Orchestra, but it wasn’t until 1927 that he really hit his stride, playing in a flurry of records with some of the most popular bands of the day. Severe alcoholism soon overtook him, though; he rarely played after 1929 and drank himself to death in 1931 at the age of 28. But while he was alive, he had a style all his own that was magical to hear. As Louis Armstrong himself put it: “Lots of cats tried to play like Bix. Ain’t none of them play like him yet.”

Jean Goldkette and His Orchestra
My Pretty Girl (Victor 20588, 1927)

“My Pretty Girl,” made with popular bandleader Jean Goldkette, gives us just a taste of what Bix was capable of. Although his solo is short, we get a feel for Bix’s raw talent. His performance is spirited, and yet in places he draws the note out just long enough to give a glimpse of the unmistakable, smooth tone that would make him famous. Even without much from Bix here, though, this is a fantastic and highly recommended record from what was at the time the hottest white jazz band around. There are amazing solos from Danny Polo on clarinet and Frankie Trumbauer on C-melody saxophone, superb flourishes from violinist Joe Venuti, and a propulsive bass line from Steve Brown.

~ You may also like Bix’s solo on his debut recording: The Wolverine Orchestra, “Jazz Me Blues” (Gennett 5408, 1924)

Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra
Singin’ the Blues (Okeh 40772, 1927)

“Singin’ the Blues” is one of the most pure and perfect recordings of the decade. Louis Armstrong was so impressed that he purportedly refused to ever play the song himself, feeling that Bix’s playing had been definitive. Listen to it and it is easy to understand why. This is Bix’s “Potato Head Blues,” his most pure moment. His tone is simultaneously commanding and fragile, and his improvisation is wholly original and fully formed. Trumbauer deserves credit for sounding almost as sweet on the C-melody sax, and Eddie Lang’s understated but brilliantly improvised guitar work provides the glue that ties it all together. Other than a brief clarinet solo by Jimmy Dorsey, Trumbauer wisely uses the rest of the band sparingly, allowing the stars to shine on their own.

~ You may also like Bix’s first recording under his own name, featuring Tommy Dorsey on trombone: Bix Beiderbecke and His Rhythm Jugglers, “Davenport Blues” (Gennett 5654, 1925)

Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra
Riverboat Shuffle (Okeh 40822, 1927)

“Riverboat Shuffle” is a fun tune with a pronounced Dixieland feel, and the entire band is in fine form, but it is of course Beiderbecke that steals the show. Bix had recorded this tune three years earlier with the Wolverine Orchestra (Gennett 5454, 1924), and that familiarity shows as he delivers a performance that is simultaneously comfortable and commanding. His lively cornet dominates the ensemble parts as he lets loose, but it is his restrained, beautifully improvised solo that serves as the real highlight.

~ You may also like: Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra, “Clarinet Marmalade” (Okeh 40772, 1927)

Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra
I’m Coming Virginia(Okeh 40843, 1927)

In “I’m Coming Virginia,” Eddie Lang picks out a lovely, easy-going part on the guitar, as the reeds play soft, sweet melodies. The listener is drawn into a trance and then, just about half-way in, Bix Beiderbecke enters on cornet. His tone is heavenly, and the song stays just as lovely, but the bold, brass instrument electrifies the record from that point on. It is a magnificent solo, probably second only to his playing on “Singin’ the Blues.” The rest of the band continues to play sweetly behind him, but except for Lang’s deft flourishes on guitar at the end, you hardly notice anything but Bix.

~ You may also like: Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra, “Ostrich Walk” (Okeh 40822, 1927)

Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra
Way Down Yonder in New Orleans (Okeh 40843, 1927)

It never fails to amaze me how much this band was able to consistently innovate while sounding so relaxed and easy-going. In “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” they both evoke New Orleans jazz and transcend it. Don Murray solos first on clarinet, and he swings like mad even as he seems to be floating effortlessly. But again it is Bix that steals the show with the song’s only other solo. Here is an improvised melody that sounds like a magnificent, fully-formed composition. When Bix begins playing short, staccato bursts, his lone cornet has such depth of expression that it could be an entire brass section. It is a joyous sound that maintains the song’s easy-going feel while sending the record soaring.

~ You may also like: New Orleans Lucky Seven (Bix Beiderbecke and His Gang), “Royal Garden Blues” (Okeh 8544, 1928)


The Composers (1927)

The next two songs are by two of the greatest – arguably the two greatest – American composers. One was primarily devoted to jazz and the other more to classical music, but what made them great was that both ignored that there was supposed to be a dividing line between those traditions.

Duke Ellington & His Cotton Club Orchestra
Black And Tan Fantasie (Victor 21137, 1927)

His was born Edward Kennedy Ellington, but even as a child he carried himself with such grace and dignity that he became known as Duke. Although the grandson of former slaves, Ellington was fortunate to grow up in a comfortable, middle-class household in Washington, D.C. He began piano lessons at age seven and soon discovered both a passion and a talent for music. In 1923, Ellington moved to New York and by 1924 he found himself leading what would, under his leadership, become the most celebrated band in the city. Ellington was a trailblazer as one of the first jazz musicians to gain prominent exposure among both white and black audiences. His orchestra served as the house band (in front of mostly white audiences) at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club from 1927-1931, and he was featured on weekly, national radio broadcasts from the club. Of course, it was the music – and Ellington's talents both as composer and as bandleader – that made all of this possible.

Ellington recorded prolifically, often issuing the same song on multiple record labels under different band names. He recorded “Black and Tan Fantasy” three different times in 1927 and all are fantastic, but it is the October 1927 version for Victor (with the alternate spelling of “Fantasie” in the title) that resonates the most. For those of you familiar with Ellington’s big band, war-era hits like “Take the ‘A’ Train,” this is going to be a bit of a surprise. At this stage, the band was making moody, edgy music – as groundbreaking as it was beautiful – that people dubbed “jungle style.” The pace is set by James “Bubber” Miley’s innovative work on muted trumpet. As the rhythm section hammers out an almost tribal rhythm, Miley sustains a beautiful held note, which mutates into a growling, singing solo that mimics a human voice. Miley returns at the end (right after a whinnying-horse trombone effect) with some more expressive trumpeting that leads into the final dramatic notes.

~ You may also like: Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, “Creole Love Call” (Victor 21137, 1927)

George Gershwin with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra conducted by Nat Shilkret
Rhapsody in Blue (Victor 35822, 1927)

George Gershwin had already established himself as one of the great American popular songwriters when he turned his attention to classical music. “Rhapsody in Blue” was his first major classical work, and the first such work to prominently feature jazz themes and conventions. Although debatable whether or not it is strictly speaking jazz, it nevertheless brilliantly captures the spirit of the jazz age and has become an enduring classic. Gershwin published “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924 and premiered it in New York backed by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra.

That 1924 debut performance was capture on record (Victor 55225), but it was recorded acoustically as electronic microphones had not yet been invented. Despite the poor sound quality, many people prefer it because of its raw energy (the tempo is quite a bit faster than what you may be used to) and historical significance. It is certainly worth hearing this version for those reasons (you can find it here: part 1 / part 2). However, Gershwin would make an electric recording in 1927 – again backed by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra (although this time conducted by guest bandleader Nat Shilkret) – and it is this 1927 version that has proven most influential.

In the 1927 version, the tempo has decreased and the song is fully realized in the form modern audiences will recognize it in. The sound is clear and the playing is marvelous: disciplined and yet full of character. The record is a back-and-forth dialogue between Gershwin’s playful solo piano and the sweeping majesty of the full orchestra. Almost everyone will recognize the music, and yet it is so powerful that it entrances again and again. From the opening, swirling, laughing clarinet solo to the final, full-orchestra crescendo, it is a masterpiece.

~ You may also like: Hoagy Carmichael with Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, “Washboard Blues” (Victor 35877, 1927)


Stunning Jazz (1927)

Jelly Roll Morton may have reached the pinnacle of New Orleans jazz with his Red Hot Peppers band, but there was a wealth of other exceptional jazz released in 1927. Morton dazzled just as much in a smaller group, Fletcher Henderson kept pushing the boundaries of big band jazz, and Louis Armstrong abandoned the blueprint mid-song and transcended jazz all together.

Jelly Roll Morton
Wolverine Blues (Victor 21064, 1927)

After his Red Hot Peppers sessions in 1927, Morton took a break to record one of his most famous compositions accompanied only by the Dodds brothers: Johnny on clarinet and Baby on drums. This tune was originally written as ragtime, and indeed for the first half of the record, Morton plays it as a straightforward, solo rag. Morton was one of the best ragtime pianists in New Orleans, and his playing here is marvelous, but there is very little in it that hints of jazz. Then, about half way in, Johnny and Baby enter and it starts to swing. Johnny carries the frontline by himself for a while, not straying too far from main melody, as his brother and Morton play softly in the background. Then the other two start to play more forcefully, Johnny’s playing gets more inventive, and the whole thing really starts to cook. By the end, it has transformed into full-scale hot New Orleans jazz without a hint of ragtime.

~ You may also like Morton’s original, solo piano version of “Wolverine Blues” (Gennett 5289, 1923)

Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra
Fidgety Feet (Vocalion 1092, 1927)

This classic is the most kinetic thing Henderson’s band ever recorded. Coleman Hawkins (tenor sax) and Buster Bailey (clarinet) are absolutely brilliant as they trade solos in the first half, and trumpeter Tommy Ladnier and trombonist Jimmy Harrison do an admirable job when the brass instruments take over in the second half. Throughout, the playing skitters to and fro with the kind of nervous energy implied by the title.

~ You may also like: Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra, “Variety Stomp” (Harmony 451-H, 1927)

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven
Potato Head Blues (Okeh 8503, 1927)

In May 1927, Louis Armstrong temporarily expanded his Hot Five band to a Hot Seven with the addition of tuba (Pete Briggs) and drums (Baby Dodds). Although the work continued to be of exceptional quality in general, one song from these sessions stands out as an all-time classic: “Potato Head Blues.” (Don’t let the title fool you: this is not a silly or humorous song; it is actually quite beautiful.) For about the first two minutes, it fits right in with what we have come to expect from Armstrong and his crew: an incredible, memorable melody and superlative musicianship. Armstrong and Johnny Dodds play together, then take turns soloing, and it is all stunning to be sure, but we have come to expect stunning.

Then, after a brief banjo interlude, we reach the final minute, and discover that Armstrong has been holding back. He now launches into a solo that will stop you in your tracks. It is haunting, absolutely hauntingly beautiful. The band plays extreme stop-time behind him, and it is amazing that such discipline and sense of swing can exist in the same space. Armstrong’s trademark timbre is laid bare in the gaps left by the band, and… words fail to describe it adequately. Suffice it to say, this is Armstrong’s most perfect moment.

The rest of the band eventually starts playing fully again, but Armstrong doesn’t make any adjustments: he just keeps playing this magnificent solo and overpowers everything else. It is a magnificent ending. Go listen to it!

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven, “Gully Low Blues” (Okeh 8474, 1927)


Red Hot Peppers (1927)

It was a great year for Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton and his “Red Hot Peppers,” as these tracks amply demonstrate. These four recordings are as good as traditional New Orleans jazz ever got.

Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers
Doctor Jazz (Victor 20415, 1927)

“Doctor Jazz” is a rollicking good time that features a rare vocal performance by Morton. (And it’s good; he should have sung more often!) The song is filled with outstanding playing all around, but the highlight is a classic solo by clarinetist Omer Simeon where he holds a single note for an extended period, until the a sudden smack of percussion from drummer Andrew Hilaire spurs him into a proper solo. Soon after, he holds another note, and this time another smack simply changes the pitch of that held note. It is simple, yet utterly brilliant.

~ You may also like: Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, “Billy Goat Stomp” (Victor 20772, 1927)

Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers
Grandpa’s Spells (Victor 20431, 1927)

One thing to listen for in many of the Red Hot Peppers records is the use of guitar and bass in the rhythm section instead of the more common banjo and tuba. Nowhere is this more apparent than “Grandpa’s Spells,” a dizzying free-for-all that is one of Morton’s most popular compositions. Johnny St. Cyr’s guitar steps out of the shadows here to carry the melody in places, but it is John Lindsay’s thumping bass that provides the key to this song’s success. As usual, every moment of this song is filled with top-notch playing, and Omer Simeon (clarinet), Kid Ory (trombone), George Mitchell (cornet) and Morton himself (piano) all take superb solos. But the most exciting moments all feature Lindsay’s propulsive, booming bass, either by itself or underscoring the other instruments.

~ You may also like: Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, “Steamboat Stomp” (Victor 20296, 1926)

Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers
Someday Sweetheart (Victor 20405, 1927)

“Someday Sweetheart” is a much slower number, featuring a sweet melody carried first by a pair of violins. Omer Simeon then has a solo on bass clarinet that is the highlight of the song; the deep bass sound is at first unexpected and yet so completely sweet and pure that it is spellbinding. Morton follows next on piano, as all of the other instruments drop away completely. When they rejoin at the end of his solo, they do so all at once and it is almost jarring. The tempo is still slow, but otherwise this is typical Red Hot Peppers territory, and it is simultaneously sweet and hot.

~ You may also like: Jelly Roll Morton’s Steamboat Four, “Mr. Jelly Roll” (a.k.a. “Mr. Jelly Lord,” Paramount 20332, 1924)

Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers
The Pearls (Victor 20948, 1927)

“The Pearls” was recorded later than the previous three songs and features a slightly different lineup. Johnny Dodds replaces Omer Simeon on clarinet, and as good as Simeon was, Dodds is an upgrade and completely runs away with this song. Also worth noting is the tuba playing of Quinn Wilson, which serves as a pivot for the song in many places. This is a complex song, and Morton arranges it beautifully, making it light as a feather.

~ You may also like: Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, “Beale Street Blues” (Victor 20948, 1927)


Blues and Kazoos (1927)

Along with an explosion of new “country blues” records, 1927 also saw the release of some exceptional new recordings in the classic female blues style, as well as the first essential “jug band” record.

Victoria Spivey
Dope Head Blues(Okeh 8531, 1927)

Victoria Spivey came from Houston, Texas, and her style falls somewhere between male Texas blues singers and vaudeville-inspired classic female blues singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Spivey was not afraid to sing about controversial subject matter: many of her records are highly suggestive (she had been the first one to record “Black Snake Blues” before Blind Lemon Jefferson had a hit with it), and she recorded a pair of songs about the tuberculosis epidemic that was ravaging the African American community in the 1920s.

“Dope Head Blues” covered another subject that until that point had been taboo in records: cocaine abuse. Spivey’s strong, colorful delivery sounds convincing for the subject matter. She alternates between easy-going and edgy, with some notes stretched out and others hastily spoken instead of sung. Lonnie Johnson provides excellent accompaniment with his relaxed, jazzy guitar work.

~ You may also like: Victoria Spivey and Lonnie Johnson, “New Black Snake Blues (Part 1)” (Okeh 8626, 1928)

Bessie Smith
Back-Water Blues (Columbia 14195-D, 1927)

The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 was one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States and would inspire numerous blues songs. While this Bessie Smith song is usually associated with that flood, however, it was actually recorded earlier in the year and likely refers to one of the many smaller floods that happened in 1926. Nevertheless, it seems prophetic now, and struck a chord with the public after the Great Flood hit. As usual, Smith turns in a great performance here. Although she hits high, powerful notes at the beginning of each verse, she generally conveys a subdued tone, and by the end of the song even the high notes have mellowed considerably. James P. Johnson provides the excellent piano accompaniment, which in places sounds reminiscent of falling rain and thunder.

~ You may also like: Bessie Smith, “Empty Bed Blues (Parts 1 & 2)” (Columbia 14312-D, 1928)

Memphis Jug Band
Memphis Jug Blues(Victor 20576, 1927)

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present a fine example of blues kazoo. Yes, I am serious. And yes, it is worth hearing.

Memphis was the heart of “jug band” music in the 1920s. The style had originated when African American musicians began playing an amalgam of blues, jazz and ragtime in string bands (banjo, guitar, fiddle, etc.) supplemented by various “found” instruments (whiskey jugs, washtubs, washboards, combs, etc.).

Despite the primitiveness of the instruments, some of this music was actually quite sophisticated, as this song from the Memphis Jug Band demonstrates. Over a bass line created by air blown into a large jug, the band layers guitar, mandolin and the occasional kazoo solo to create a wonderfully unique sound. Adding to this rich tapestry are the complex vocal harmonies. Throughout most of the song, a second singer chants a separate set of lyrics under the lead vocals. A third singer occasionally joins as well, slightly off-beat from the other two. To hear these three voices come together to sing “Baby, what’s the matter now?” in sloppy unison is magic. It may have to be heard to be believed, but this is excellent music and wonderful fun – kazoos and all!

~ You may also like: Memphis Jug Band, “Cocaine Habit Blues” (Victor V-38620, 1930)


Texas Blues (1927)

Some of the earliest and best “country blues” records were from Texas, where the local blues style featured expressive vocals and simple, relaxed guitar accompaniment with jazz-like improvisations. “Blind” Lemon Jefferson was the first artist to record in this style (in 1926), and his early records proved very influential on future Texas bluesmen.

Blind Lemon Jefferson
Black Snake Moan(Okeh 8455, 1927)

Blind Lemon Jefferson
Match Box Blues (Paramount 12474, 1927)

Jefferson recorded “Black Snake Moan” twice: the first was originally titled “That Black Snake Moan” and was released as a B-side in early 1927 on the Paramount label (catalog number 12407); the second was released later that year on Okeh backed with Jefferson’s first recording of “Match Box Blues.” A Paramount version of “Match Box Blues” was then recorded and released as an A-side later in 1927. At the time, Paramount was a discount record label that catered to the “race” market, and was infamous for its low-fidelity recording techniques and records made of inferior-grade shellac that scratched easily. As a result, the Okeh versions of these songs have fared much better over time, while even the best copies of the Paramount versions are marred by a lot of hissing surface noise. The actual performances on these records are all strong, but the A-sides are considered definitive: “Black Snake Moan” on Okeh, “Match Box Blues” on Paramount.

In these recordings, Jefferson’s guitar playing follows no set melodic pattern, simply improvising behind and around the powerful, expressive vocals. The Okeh version of “Black Snake Moan” seems particularly formless at times, as the guitar accompaniment fades or stops completely during the vocals, only to reappear in the gaps in some improvised variation. Jefferson wails and moans the vocals, lending them a sense of urgency that matches well with the song’s not-so-subtle allusion: “Black snake crawlin’ in my room / And some pretty mama had better come here and get this black snake soon.”

~ You may also like: Blind Lemon Jefferson, “That Crawling Baby Blues” (Paramount 12880, 1929)

By contrast, the guitar is constantly in the foreground of the Paramount version of “Match Box Blues,” and seems almost to be competing for attention with the vocals, improvising wildly at times, while still managing to keep rhythm. In the end, it somehow works and makes for a very powerful and memorable record.

~ You may also like: Blind Lemon Jefferson, “Jack o’ Diamond Blues” (Paramount 12373, 1926)

Texas Alexander
Long Lonesome Day Blues (Okeh 8511, 1927)

Alger “Texas” Alexander did not play an instrument, relying on others to accompany him. But his wonderfully expressive voice was one of the best in the Texas blues scene, making excellent use of vibrato. “Long Lonesome Day Blues” suffers from poor recording quality, but the vocals are still impressive and convey an astonishing depth of emotion. The excellent guitar work here is provided by Lonnie Johnson, who would soon establish himself as a guitar legend with a number of boundary-breaking blues and jazz recordings. As with Blind Lemon Jefferson, both Alexander and Johnson take liberties with the rhythm and melody, creating a free-form improvisation that hints at jazz.

~ You may also like to hear Alexander with a small jazz group featuring Joe “King” Oliver on cornet, Clarence Williams on piano and Eddie Lang on guitar: Texas Alexander, “Tell Me Woman Blues” (Okeh 8673, 1928)


Eastern Blues (1927)

Despite the fact that very little guitar-based blues had yet been recorded, there was actually a tremendous amount of this “country blues” being played, and a rich variety of regional styles had developed. The style most common in the southern Atlantic states (from Virginia to Georgia) was known as “Piedmont blues” and featured complex fingerpicking and a high degree of ragtime-inspired syncopation. Even though this style dominated, though, the Piedmont region was host to a great many other, overlapping playing styles.

Julius Daniels
Ninety-Nine Year Blues (Victor 20658, 1927)

Julius Daniels from South Carolina was one of the first to be recorded in the Piedmont blues style, and his “Ninety-Nine Year Blues” stands as one of the classics of the genre. The story is one of a man sentenced to 99 years in prison after shooting and killing those who wouldn’t “leave this poor boy alone.” Julius’ singing is soft and difficult to hear at times, but livens up in places to imbue just the right amount of character into the song. And the real star here is the wonderful guitar playing. Daniels usually sang while another musician played guitar, but he appears to have played guitar himself on this record, and if so it is a wonder he did not do so more often. The music is hypnotic, with a gentle but compelling melody picked out on the treble strings while rhythm is kept on the bass strings.

~ You may also like: Barbecue Bob, “Motherless Chile Blues” (Columbia 14299-D, 1928)

Barbecue Bob
Barbecue Blues (Columbia 14205-D, 1927)

Robert Hicks acquired the nickname “Barbecue Bob” because he was discovered while working at a barbecue restaurant in Atlanta. Although he was from a south Atlantic state, he did not play guitar in the Piedmont blues style. Instead, he used an older, “frailing” style similar to the “clawhammer” style that was at that time commonly used to play the banjo. “Barbecue Blues,” taken from his first recording session, made him an instant sensation and would help bring attention to the vibrant Atlanta blues scene. A hint of a growl in his strong voice gives the song just the right edge. He would go on to have even bigger hits over the next couple of years, but this first one remains his best work. Sadly, he would die of influenza in 1931 at age 29.

~ You may also like: Barbecue Bob and Laughing Charley, “It Won’t Be Long Now” (Columbia 14268-D, 1927)


Shades of Somber (1926-1927)

While the majority of the jazz and pop music of the 1920s was happy and upbeat, the blues did not have a monopoly on melancholy. In the hands of skilled musicians, jazz proved to be versatile enough to convey a wide range of emotions while remaining as engaging as ever. On the other hand, stage actor and singer Paul Robeson was able to take simple folk songs and spirituals and give them a modern polish – without losing an ounce of emotion.

Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers
Dead Man Blues(Victor 20252, 1926)

“Dead Man Blues” is another classic from Jelly Roll Morton and company. This one starts out with a tongue-in-cheek dialogue that explains the back story (a funeral procession is passing by) while letting you know that there is fun ahead. Then, after a few somber bars of Chopin’s “Funeral March,” the band transitions into jazz with a slide of Kid Ory’s trombone, and the song takes a decidedly more relaxed and happy tone. The song captures the New Orleans funeral tradition of somber music on the way to the burial, and joyous music (to celebrate the life of the deceased) on the return. There is a brief section where Ory, clarinetist Omer Simeon and trumpeter George Mitchell all play competing melodies at once. This is followed by solos from first Simeon and then Mitchell, and while neither is technically challenging, they are both beautifully played. The lead instruments then all come together for several bars for another lovely melody, which is this time punctuated by quick strikes from the rhythm section. The lead instruments then go their separate ways again for a short spell and appear to end the song that way. But after only the briefest moment of silence, there is a final sweet gift: a soft, understated repetition of the unified melody and a final strike from the rhythm section.

~ You may also like: Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, “Sidewalk Blues” (Victor 20252, 1926)

Ted Lewis and His Band with Sophie Tucker
Some of These Days(Columbia 826-D, 1926)

Sophie Tucker was a Jewish veteran of the vaudeville circuit who had begun her career in blackface imitating African American song styles. However, her imitation was sincere and she soon left the blackface behind and concentrated on perfecting her craft, taking lessons from such African American stars as Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters. Backed by the Ted Lewis’ popular band, “Some of These Days” would sell a million copies in 1926 and would become Tucker’s theme song for the rest of her life. And for good reason: this is a dynamite song and Tucker nails the performance. She imbues the age-old story with both sadness and defiance, as she tells the lover who has spurned her “You’re gonna miss your big fat mama / your mama / Some of these days.”

~ You may also like: Sophie Tucker’s original, solo recording of “Some of These Days” (Edison 4M-691, 1911)

Paul Robeson
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child (Victor 20013, 1926)

Paul Robeson was an African American pioneer and renaissance man, breaking many color barriers in the first half of the twentieth century. He is best remembered for his work in musical theater, and for his heart-felt renditions of old, African American spirituals such as this one, which he rescued from obscurity and helped become a modern folk standard.

Robeson has only a simple, slow piano accompaniment here, but he needs nothing else. A trained opera singer, his deep, rich bass voice is a powerful instrument and he plays it superbly. The tremolo in his voice conveys just the right balance between emotion and restraint as he stretches each note out for effect. And despite its somber tone, the beauty of its delivery makes this performance strangely uplifting.

~ You may also like: Walter Pidgeon, “What’ll I Do?” (HMV B1882, 1924)

1927 Headlines … Charles Lindbergh makes the first nonstop transatlantic flight … Great Mississippi Flood affects 700,000 … First full-length movie with synchronized sound: The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson

Paul Robeson
Deep River (Victor 20793, 1927)

This is another moving performance from Paul Robeson of a traditional African American spiritual. The lyrics of the song are simple but powerful, drawing parallels between the Biblical theme of the Israelites seeking the Promised Land, and the trials of African Americans seeking freedom: “Deep river, my home is over Jordan / Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.” The implication is that the trials of this life are a deep river, but heaven (campground) lies on the other side.

Again, Robeson’s vocal control is amazing. Because this song is written to be more comforting than somber, he is able to deliver a more dynamic performance here than he gave on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” He takes liberties with tempo and loudness to deliver maximum impact throughout. After starting with the chorus, he repeats it again, but this time speeding it up in the beginning, only to slow it way down at the end, making the listener hang on every word. Then he does the same with the verse and the song hits its apex just as he slows down and powerfully delivers the words “Promised Land.” The song then fades softly out as he finishes the verse and repeats the second half of the chorus.

At that point, I highly recommend hitting pause to stop and soak in what you’ve just heard. And then rewind to hear it again, because it is over far too quickly.

~ You may also like any of Robeson’s numerous performances of his signature song from the musical Show Boat, such as his original London cast recording: Paul Robeson, “Ol’ Man River” (Columbia/EMI, unreleased 1928 recording; Paul Robeson Sings “Ol’ Man River” and Other Favorites, Angel, 1972)

Blind Mamie Forehand
Honey in the Rock (Anchor 381, 1927)

Mamie Forehand was a blind street singer from Memphis who made a handful of highly-regarded recordings late in life. With her husband, A.C., gently accompanying on slide guitar, she created a delicate masterpiece in “Honey in the Rock.” This is proto-gospel blues, and the spiritual elements add amazing depth to the fragile vocals. The contrast between Forehand’s weak, weary voice and the weightless, uplifting lyrics is captivating: “Mother, mother, can’t you see / Oh, what the Lord has did for me / There is no evil ever in sight / While I’m walking by my savior’s side.” In addition to singing, Forehand plays small, antique cymbals, which chime faintly but steadily in the background. This unusual choice of accompaniment serves to make the record even more distinctive and elevating.

~ You may also like: Washington Phillips, “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There” (Columbia 14277-D, 1927)


The New Hot (1926)

While hot big band jazz was just starting to simmer, small group jazz was already cooking. The next few years would see it reach its zenith with groundbreaking performances by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and others.

King Oliver’s Jazz Band
Snag It (Vocalion 1007, 1926)

(Note: there were two takes of this song, both released as Vocalion 1007. Both are good, but the second take, session no. E-2635, is the better of the two and the one discussed here. The first take, E-2634, contains more ensemble playing and less soloing. It also contains vocals by Richard M. Jones – “Oh, Snag It! Snag It!” – that are not found in the more famous second take.)

Joe Oliver may not have achieved the career heights of his former protégé Louis Armstrong, but as “Snag It” shows, there was a reason they called him King. This record contains some of the most memorable playing of his career. His cornet is in control right from the start, kicking things off with a wailing call and then leading the rest of the band swirling behind it. The band is simply magnificent, especially some almost-squeaky, staccato accents from tenor saxophonist Barney Bigard and a slow, yearning solo from Kid Ory on trombone. After the solos, Oliver returns with a brisk, eight-bar solo that sounds like a rallying cry and stands in brilliant contrast to the generally relaxed feel of the rest of the song. The band then once again weaves beautiful ensemble work behind Oliver’s magnificent cornet as he winds things down and slowly brings the record to a conclusion.

~ You may also like: King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, “Canal Street Blues” (Gennett 5133, 1923)

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Muskrat Ramble(Okeh 8300, 1926)

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Heebie Jeebies(Okeh 8300, 1926)

After his stint with Fletcher Henderson, Armstrong returned to Chicago and finally put together a band of his own. That group was a who’s who of jazz greats dubbed the “Hot Five,” and while it really only existed in the studio, that was enough to cement Armstrong’s legacy. In addition to Armstrong, there was first and foremost the legendary Kid Ory on trombone. This was the man who was credited for single-handedly defining the role of the trombone in New Orleans jazz, who had given Joe Oliver the nickname “King” when he served in Ory’s band, and who had cut the first record by an African American jazz band (“Ory’s Creole Trombone” in 1922). In addition, Armstrong recruited fellow King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band veterans Johnny Dodds on clarinet (who was himself approaching legendary status), Johnny St. Cyr on banjo, and Lil Hardin Armstrong on piano. Lil and Louis had married in 1924, and it was she who convinced Louis to return to Chicago.

The band first entered the studio in November 1925, and the results were instant magic. The following February they recorded a slew of new songs and found their first hit in Kid Ory’s “Muskrat Ramble.” That Armstrong is fantastic almost goes without saying, but Kid Ory comes close to outshining him. In fact, the entire band is incredibly tight, but it is Ory’s trombone that ties it all together, matching Armstrong note for note and underscoring his best moments with a slow slide. It is arguably the best trombone jazz part ever recorded.

~ You may also like the first recording ever released of New Orleans jazz featuring African American musicians: Kid Ory’s Original Creole Jazz Band, “Ory’s Creole Trombone” (Sunshine 3003, 1922)

Amazingly, the other side of the “Muskrat Ramble” record was every bit as good. “Heebie Jeebies” starts out with a melody so pure and so wonderfully performed by the band that the song would have surely been considered a classic on that strength alone. But what truly makes this special is Louis Armstrong’s first-ever vocal performance on record. Over St. Cyr’s simple but swinging banjo part, Armstrong’s unmistakable voice is raspy but rich as he proceeds to sing and scat the most wonderful nonsense. (Sample line: “Sweet mama, papa’s got to do the Heebie Jeebies dance.”)

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, “Dropping Shucks” (Okeh 8357, 1926)

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Cornet Chop Suey (Okeh 8320, 1926)

“Cornet Chop Suey” is yet another undeniable classic recorded in the same February 1926 session as “Muskrat Ramble” and “Heebie Jeebies.” The degree of innovation here is unbelievable, as the band puts on a clinic on timing. Armstrong has two memorable solos here that make use of stop-time playing (where the normal rhythm is disrupted by brief periods of silence). The first contains a section where the entire band stops and starts in unison with him, and Johnny Dodds mirrors him note for note. In the second solo, the band again stops and starts in unison, but Armstrong’s timing is more loose as he plays – brilliantly – during the gaps to varying degrees.

This record sometimes gets overlooked in the Armstrong cannon just because 1927’s “Potato Head Blues” is the most impressive and beautiful display of stop-time ever recorded, but Armstrong’s playing on “Cornet Chop Suey” is so fresh and imaginative that the record really deserves to stand on its own.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, “Big Butter and Egg Man from the West” (Okeh 8423, 1927)

Johnny Hamp’s Kentucky Serenaders
Black Bottom (Victor 20101, 1926)

The Black Bottom was a dance that became a craze in 1926 and briefly overtook the Charleston as the most popular dance. After the dance was featured in several stage shows, popular bandleader Johnny Hamp and his group capitalized on its success with this superb record. If you compare this to what Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton was doing at the time, you will notice how straight-forward the solos are and how little improvisation there is. But while this was less technically impressive, it was still surprisingly good jazz, with a sense of fun that cannot be denied. The musicianship and timing are first rate as the different instruments dance in and out of the tune for a few notes at a time. And there are numerous whimsical little touches that keep you on your toes: from the opening call of “Do-do-do-di-lo” to a few unexpected strikes of the woodblock. The best touch, though is the handclapping at about the two minute mark: priceless.

~ You may also like: Abe Lyman’s California Orchestra, “Shake That Thing” (Brunswick 3069, 1926)

Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers
Black Bottom Stomp (Victor 20221, 1926)

Jelly Roll Morton was a was a larger-than-life character who got his start playing piano as a teenager in seedy establishments in “Storyville,” New Orleans’s red-light district. He soon grew into jazz’s first great pianist and composer. Working in Chicago in 1926, he assembled a studio group of some of jazz’s brightest stars. Called the Red Hot Peppers, they soon began a string of some of the most exciting jazz records ever made.

“Black Bottom Stomp” (reportedly named by Morton after the Black Bottom neighborhood in Detroit, and not necessarily for that year’s dance craze) was the group’s first hit, and is an excellent example of Morton’s ability as an arranger: as good as Morton is on the piano, the band is his real instrument here. Morton gets the most out of his musicians (who included trombonist Kid Ory and banjoist Johnny St. Cyr from Louis Armstrong's band), maintaining high levels of both energy and virtuosity throughout. The pace is frenetic and the instruments often seem to be running wild, and yet it all fits together brilliantly.

~ You may also like: Jelly Roll Morton and His Orchestra, “Burnin’ the Iceberg” (Victor V-38075, 1929)


Big Bands Bang (1925-1926)

The “Big Band Era” may not have officially begun until the mid-1930s, but as the following tracks demonstrate, there certainly was a good variety of big band music being made at least a decade earlier.

Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra
Sugar Foot Stomp(Columbia 395-D, 1925)

Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra
T.N.T.(Columbia 509-D, 1925)

Fletcher Henderson was the first African American to find success leading a big band, but genius was a matter of trial and error for him. At first, there was not much to distinguish his sound from that of Paul Whiteman or other white bandleaders: the music took on some of the character of small-band jazz, but with so many instruments, it had to be highly choreographed and lost a lot of the spontaneity and “heat” that the small bands were known for. It wasn’t until Louis Armstrong moved to New York and joined him for several sessions in 1924 and 1925 that Henderson and his arranger Don Redman hit upon a winning formula and came into their own. Such was Armstrong’s presence and innovation that they were forced to reevaluate their entire approach, eventually hitting upon the basic formula for the big band swing that would dominate for the next two decades. The lush sound of a highly arranged orchestra was retained, but with plenty of "space" built in to give each section more room to breathe, creating almost a dialogue effect between groups of instruments. And on top of it all, soloists would be given plenty of room for some "hot" improvisation to give each performance unique character.

Henderson’s first recordings with Armstrong were good, at times very good, but not yet groundbreaking. He recognized Armstrong’s talent, but just didn’t comprehend how to fully harness it. “Sugar Foot Stomp,” recorded in May 1925, was the moment when everything came together. It borrowed heavily from King Oliver’s “Dipper Mouth Blues,” including the introduction, Oliver’s famous cornet solo (here played by Armstrong), and the interjection “Oh, play that thing!” Large sections of the song were entirely new, however, introducing the sweet sound of a well-orchestrated big band and creating exciting tension with Armstrong’s hot solo.

~ You may also like: Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra, “Copenhagen” (Vocalion 14926, 1924)

“T.N.T.” comes from Armstrong’s last session with Henderson in October 1925. At this point, Armstrong is still the clear star of the show, but the rest of the band seems to have learned tremendously from working with him. The piece feels a little looser, swings a little more and comes together like a well-oiled machine. The end result is… well, insert pun here.

~ You may also like: Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra, “Clarinet Marmalade” (Brunswick 3406, 1927)

1926 Headlines … First films with synchronized audio … NBC radio network opens with 24 stations … U.K. General Strike unsuccessfully attempts to prevent loss of wages and work conditions for coal miners

Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra
The Stampede(Columbia 654-D, 1926)

The biggest beneficiary of Louis Armstrong’s tenure with Fletcher Henderson may have been tenor saxophone player Coleman Hawkins. He was a budding talent, and Armstrong’s influence had a profound influence on his playing style. After Armstrong departed, Hawkins quickly established himself as the band’s new star, becoming the first important tenor player in jazz. In fact, as strange as it seems to us today, before Hawk the tenor sax was not really considered a jazz instrument. This record is the very moment that changed that opinion. Listening to Hawkins’ brilliant solo is a revelation: this is an instrument that was made for jazz, and Hawk shows a dazzling range of the instrument’s personality.

But Hawkins is not the only star here. From the opening bars, the entire band swings like crazy, moving with fluidity and personality that wouldn’t have seemed possible in a band this size just a few months prior. Indeed, this record stands head and shoulder over everything they recorded with Armstrong and stands toe-to-toe with anything that was recorded during the height of the Big Band Era, or any other period in jazz history.

~ You may also like: Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra, “Queer Notions” (Vocalion 2583, 1933)

Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra
The Chant (Columbia 817-D, 1926)

If “The Stampede” weren’t enough to establish the Henderson group as the top big band, this charming number should have done the trick. “The Chant” is the mellow counterpart to “The Stampede,” but is every bit as impressive in its restraint as the previous song was in its liveliness. You get the hint that you’re in store for something different early on, when the band yields to a short organ break. Later, there is a banjo solo – how often do you hear that in jazz? But the song has such a relaxed structure and easy flow that none of this comes off sounding like a gimmick. The instruments are like the different people you meet on a nice easy stroll down the lane. And all of them tell such interesting stories!

~ You may also like: Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra, “Jackass Blues” (Columbia 654-D, 1926)

Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra featuring Franklyn Baur
Valencia (A Song of Spain) (Victor 20007, 1926)

Despite the fascinating work being done by Henderson’s big band, most of the listening audience was not yet paying attention. They were listening to big bands to be sure, but the sound of that band owed very little to jazz. “Valencia” was the most popular song of 1926, giving Whiteman a #1 hit for 11 weeks. There is about as much jazz in this “Song Of Spain” as there is Spanish flavor: not much. Still, it is a pleasant listen with a very catchy melody and well-sung (if somewhat dated) vocals by Franklyn Baur. Yes, it is saccharine, but it is also upbeat and fun, and every time Baur sings “Valencia!” you will want to sing along at the top of your voice.

~ You may also like: the Broadway Nitelites (Ben Selvin and His Orchestra featuring Franklyn Baur), “Thou Swell” (Columbia 1187-D, 1927)

Search This Blog