Milestone Recordings in American Music

2/18/09

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)

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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
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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)

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