Milestone Recordings in American Music

2/12/09

Jazz Royalty (1923-1924)

In 1923, the best African American jazz musicians, led by King Oliver and Clarence Williams, were finally given the chance to enter the recording studio. We can only speculate about what the music sounded like before this, but in 1923 it sounded perfect. Here was New Orleans jazz in all its glory, fully formed and realized.

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band
Chimes Blues
(Gennet 5135, 1923)

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band
Dipper Mouth Blues
(Okeh 4918, 1923)

Joe “King” Oliver was one of the most renowned jazz trumpeters of the 1910s, but racial prejudices prevented him from recording at that time. In 1919 he moved from New Orleans to Chicago, and in 1922 he invited his former protégé, Louis Armstrong, to join him. Oliver’s band, packed with some of the most talented jazz musicians of the day and in absolute peak form, was finally captured on record in 1923, and the results were nothing short of stunning.

Recorded at their very first session, “
Chimes Blues” puts all previous jazz records to shame. The song opens with a dazzling yet graceful section of polyphonic jazz, with cornets, trombone and clarinet all staking out separate but complimentary melodies while the banjo, wood block and piano keep rhythm. The pace then slows considerably, although the instruments continue to chart separate melodic courses. Half way through the song, it changes again as the lead instruments now play staccato bursts with the rhythm section and the piano rises to carry the melody. Then, about two thirds of the way into the song, Louis Armstrong lets loose with a brief solo. Up until this point, Armstrong had been forced to stand further away from the acoustic recording horn than his band mates, so that his powerful delivery would not overwhelm the other instruments. Listening to this solo, it is easy to understand why. Pay attention to this section, because it is a bit of foreshadowing: Armstrong is one of the all time geniuses of American music, and over the next few years he will almost single-handedly change everything. It is over way too soon, as Armstrong fades back into the ensemble and the song rolls to a nice easy finish.

~ You may also like: King Oliver’s Jazz Band, “Tears” (Okeh 40000, 1923)

As if that weren’t good enough, later that year, Oliver’s Band recorded a masterful version of his signature song, “ Dipper Mouth Blues.” This is lively, expertly played New Orleans jazz from start to finish. This time it is Oliver’s turn to shine, as he displays masterful use of the mute during an extended cornet solo that finally ends with someone shouting “Oh, play that thing!”

~ You may also like: King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, “Snake Rag” (Okeh 4933, 1923)

Clarence Williams’ Blue Five
Wild Cat Blues
(Okeh 4925, 1923)

Clarence Williams was a talented pianist, songwriter, bandleader and businessman. He consistently made some of the best jazz records of the 1920s, thanks in large part to his great ear for talent (which landed him a position at Okeh Records) and a willingness to let the talented musicians around him stretch the boundaries. “Wild Cat Blues” was one of his first big hits, and remains an absolute classic of New Orleans jazz. While the entire ensemble is in fine form, the record is primarily a showcase for the incomparable Sidney Bechet, whose amazing clarinet dominates from start to finish.

~ You may also like more wonderful playing by Sidney Bechet on the other side of this single: Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, “Kansas City Man Blues” (Okeh 4925, 1923)

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1924 Headlines … Vladimir Lenin dies; Joseph Stalin becomes new leader of Russia … First Winter Olympics games … Calvin Coolidge becomes the first U.S. President to deliver a political speech via radio
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Clarence Williams’ Blue Five featuring Eva Taylor
Everybody Loves My Baby (But My Baby Don't Love Nobody But Me)
(Okeh 8181, 1924)

This is another great record from Williams’ band, this time featuring his wife Eva Taylor on vocals and Louis Armstrong on cornet. The track gets off to a great start with a lively solo from Buster Bailey on soprano sax, then Taylor takes over to belt out the now classic lyrics. But the real star of the show is Armstrong. Williams wisely gives him the final 45 seconds of the song to solo, and Armstrong takes full advantage, bringing the song home with an exhilarating romp that is easily the best thing he had yet recorded. About half way through, everything drops away except for Armstrong and the rhythm section, and he kicks it up another notch with a brief, dizzying sequence that bounces around joyously all over the scale and then ends with a growl from his cornet as the rest of the band joins back in. (And as impressive as it is, just wait: he gets even better!)

~ You may also like: Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, “Texas Moaner Blues” (Okeh 8171, 1924)

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