Milestone Recordings in American Music

3/1/09

Shades of Sweet (1927)

Bix Beiderbecke wasn’t the only one creating beautiful music in 1927. As the following recordings demonstrate, there was a wide variety of honey-sweet music being made, ranging from mellow jazz to sentimental vocal pop.

Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra
Trumbology(Okeh 40871, 1927)

When talking about Trumbauer’s 1927 recordings, it is easy to forget everything except Bix Beiderbecke, but to do so would be to overlook how tremendously talented the entire group was. That talent begins with Trumbauer himself, who despite his unusual choice of instrument (the rare C-melody sax, which falls between alto and tenor) helped define the role of saxophone in jazz. This recording of his composition “Trumbology” contains his most influential playing. Yes, Bix is here and you can hear him in places if you listen carefully, but it is Trumbauer that dominates this record from start to finish and takes his place as one of the great jazz innovators. “Tram” (as he was nicknamed) is in top form here, with exceptional intonation and timing. In several places, he runs through a series of notes with astonishing speed and control, managing to maintain a sense of cool even as he dazzles. Years later, the great saxophonist Lester Young would cite Tram as his biggest influence.

~ You may also like Frankie Trumbauer’s C-melody saxophone in this great trio recording: Tram, Bix and Lang, “For No Reason at All in C” (Okeh 40871, 1927)

Bix Beiderbecke
In a Mist (Bixology) (Okeh 40916, 1927)

As a teenager spellbound by jazz, Bix Beiderbecke had taught himself to play cornet, but he already had a musical background, having taken piano lessons as a child. He continued to dabble in his first instrument throughout his life, and the tinkering eventually yielded several compositions. His recording of “In a Mist” (sometimes called “Bixology” in later releases) is one of the highlights of his career. While he is not as refined on piano as on cornet, like everything else Bix played, this record is both wonderfully inventive and incredibly beautiful. There are clear nods to ragtime, but also many places where his style is wholly his own. As you listen to this, keep in mind that this was his only solo piano recording. When Bix’s troubled life came to its tragic end, we lost a tremendous talent who had only begun to show us what he was capable of.

~ You may also like the similarly beautiful B-side: Tram, Bix and Lang, “Wringin’ and Twistin’” (Okeh 40916, 1927)

George Olsen and His Music featuring Fran Frey 
The Varsity Drag (Victor 20875, 1927)

As college became more accessible to Americans in the early 20th Century, collegiate life became a common pop-culture point of reference. “The Varsity Drag” is a great example of this and proved to be one of biggest hits of 1927. George Olsen’s recording was one of many versions to flood the market, and to my ears the best. Fran Frey’s understated, even singing style provides wonderful contrast to the jazzy accompaniment. He seems almost out of his comfort range when he raises his voice to sing, “Down on the heels! Up on the toes!” and it gives the sweet song just a slight bit of edge. (So does the punctuation added by the baritone sax in the final section.) Yes, it is sugar-coated light jazz, but it is also a fun song that captures the optimism of the Roaring Twenties. And it rightfully sparked a dance craze on campuses across the country.

~ You may also like: George Olsen and His Music, “Who?” (Victor 19840, 1926)

Gene Austin
My Blue Heaven(Victor 20964, 1927)

The advent of electronic microphones made it possible for singers with soft, subtle voices like Gene Austin to record successfully. His lullaby-level singing proved very popular with audiences accustomed to the bold, big-voiced vaudeville style that had previously been needed both for records and for live performances. Austin was the first singer to find success with this style, which would become known as “crooning.” I will admit that the bird calls are over-the-top here, but otherwise this record is a little, happy slice of pop heaven: “Just Molly and me / And baby makes three / We’re happy in my blue heaven.”

~ You may also like: Nick Lucas, “Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips with Me” (Brunswick 4418, 1929)

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