Milestone Recordings in American Music


Happy Jazz (1925)

One of the things that made early jazz so popular was its unending energy. As jazz became more ingrained in the cultural fabric, that energy was harnessed to make otherwise mundane music fun. And in the hands of master musicians, it could take the music to a whole new level of joy.

Eddie Cantor
If You Knew Susie (Columbia 364-D, 1925)

This is a highly entertaining record from Eddie Cantor, a versatile star of theater, film, radio and later television. It has a Dixieland feel to it, which only serves to show how ingrained jazz was becoming in society. The music isn’t there to dazzle, it’s just there to provide exactly the right level of levity and mayhem to underscore the outrageous lyrics, which Cantor delivers with verve. Best line: “I had a moustache and trained it like a pup / She’s got such hot lips, she kissed me once and burned it up!”

~ You may also like hearing a similar story told from the woman’s point of view (“I gave him one kiss and singed off his moustache”): Sophie Tucker, “I’m The Last of the Red Hot Mamas” (Victor 21994, 1929)

Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra
(Victor 19671, 1925)

The Charleston was a popular, animated dance that first developed in the African American community. In 1923, pianist James P. Johnson composed a tune by the same name, propelling the dance into an international phenomenon that would carry into the 1940s. The song was recorded numerous times, but by far my favorite is this version by Paul Whiteman. Compare this to Whiteman’s earliest records, and you will see how far jazz had become ingrained in mainstream society. While not especially innovative, the musicianship here is quite good, and of course Johnson’s composition speaks for itself. What I like about this particular version is all of the “Wah-dah-do-dah-do” vocalization peppered throughout the song. Having heard the melody many times before, I was not expecting this the first time I heard Whiteman’s version, but it is a fun addition that captures the energy of its namesake dance.

~ You may also like: Ted Lewis and His Band, “Is Everybody Happy Now?” (Columbia 1207-D, 1927)

Clarence Williams’ Blue Five featuring Eva Taylor
Mandy, Make Up Your Mind
(Okeh 40260, 1925)

This is a wonderfully weird slice of jazz that is absolutely engrossing. It actually starts off pretty normal: there is an opening instrumental section that features some solid but not groundbreaking work by Louis Armstrong on cornet, Sidney Bechet on soprano sax and Charlie Irvis on trombone, followed by some catchy vocals by Eva Taylor. If you listen closely, you’ll notice some foreshadowing of what’s to come, as Bechet occasionally lays down his saxophone to play a few notes on the sarrusophone, an obscure instrument that resembles both the bassoon and the bass saxophone. It is at about the half-way mark of the song, when the vocal section ends, that the true magic of this song begins. Bechet sets aside his sax for good and launches into a no-holds-barred sarrusophone solo that is simultaneously beautiful and bizarre. (You can find a 22 second clip of it here.) This is not one of his normal instruments, but he does a superb job as usual, coaxing a gorgeous melody out of the low, rumbling woodwind. Even when the rest of the band fully joins in, one can hardly stop focusing on the sarrusophone, and it isn’t until Bechet drops out for a brief second that you really even notice Armstrong’s wonderful countermelody.

~ You may also like the other side of this single, also featuring Eva Taylor on vocals: Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird” (Okeh 40260, 1925)

Clarence Williams’ Blue Five featuring Eva Taylor
Cake Walkin’ Babies (From Home)
(Okeh 40321, 1925)

This is an absolute classic and maybe the happiest jazz record ever made. The cakewalk was a dance contest that originated when slaves would humorously imitate white society. (The best dancer would sometimes win a cake.) The tradition continued as a chance to let loose and have fun. Williams and his crew took that carefree sense of irreverence and amplified it a hundred times. Ignore that the instruments are acoustic for a moment, and forget that jazz is supposed to be cerebral: this is rock and roll. It is party music of the highest degree, and it is a blast.

It launches right off with Louis Armstrong’s cornet stating the main melody, as the rest of the band engages in a lively exchange behind him. Eva Taylor’s exuberant vocals come next, and while they’re not the most memorable lyrics, she really belts them out. Then the record launches into an increasingly frenetic free-for-all, with Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong trading solos. Bechet’s soprano sax has several magnificent moments of pure joy, but as strong as he is, Louis Armstrong steals the show. When he lets loose in the final 40 seconds, it’s all the rest of the band – or the listener – can do to hang on.

~ You may also like: Clara Smith and Her Jazz Band, “Chicago Blues” (Columbia 14009-D, 1924)


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