Milestone Recordings in American Music

6/5/11

Jazz Evolving (1939)

In 1939, big band jazz was making its mark on the American musical landscape, but jazz had not decided to sit still. Out of the limelight, jazz artists were continuing to push boundaries, as they had done from the beginning. The following tracks show the result of some of that innovation and the hints of things to come.

Coleman Hawkins
Body and Soul(Bluebird B-10523, 1939)

Recorded as an afterthought, “Body and Soul” is a sublime masterpiece and the single greatest accomplishment of Coleman Hawkins’ distinguished career. The song was already a pop standard, and remains so, but Hawkins’ performance is far from definitive, having less to do with the song itself than with the style and mood of his playing. With minimal accompaniment, Hawkins’ tenor saxophone paints a picture as revolutionary for the jazz world as Louis Armstrong’s groundbreaking work more than a decade prior. Hawkins follows the harmonic structure of the song perfectly, so that one could easily imagine the lyrics being sung along, but he improvises the melody so much that it is hardly recognizable as the same song. This would become the norm in modern jazz, but it was all but unheard of in 1939. And yet, unlike the harsh, confused reaction that bebop would elicit a few years later, Hawkins’ style is so endearing that this approach is instantly accessible. His soft tone is comforting and his rich improvisation is conducted with a gentle grace so smooth that a listener might be persuaded to think that this was the original melody all along. Even towards the end, when the saxophone squeaks for dramatic effect, it is spellbinding rather than jarring. It is a stunning performance, one that really wouldn’t be matched again until the “cool jazz” movement a decade later.

~ You may also like this stunning, unaccompanied recording: Coleman Hawkins, “Picasso” (Mercury 2073, 1948)

Willie “The Lion” Smith
Echoes of Spring(Commodore 521, 1939)

William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoft Smith, nicknamed “The Lion” because of his bravery while serving in World War I, is one of the giants of the stride piano style, along with James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. His 1939 solo recordings, and particularly “Echoes of Spring,” are considered the high point of his career. “Echoes” is a remarkably light recording, so pleasant that it is easy – at least for a while – to overlook just how talented and sophisticated a pianist Smith was. With a steady, meandering bass line from his left hand, his right hand produces a lovely, tinkling melody on the high notes. About a minute and a half into the song, his right hand gets more adventurous and opens up new perspectives on that melody. Smith even throws in occasional booming, discordant notes that are completely unexpected and yet do nothing to diminish the song’s loveliness.

~ You may also like: Willie “The Lion” Smith, “Finger Buster” (Commodore 521, 1939)

Art Tatum
Tea for Two(Decca 2456, 1939)

“Tea for Two” is Art Tatum’s most enduring recording, a work that manages to dazzle with its display of technical prowess while simultaneously retaining the charm of a lovely ballad. Like Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul,” this record finds the lead improvising greatly, but where Hawkins created an entirely new world out of an old song, Tatum starts with the original melody, drives it into new possibilities with flashes of virtuosity, and then brings it ever so gently back to familiar territory again. In doing so, he creates a perfect framework for his unique talents, an arena where he can show off his abilities – things other pianists just can’t do – while staying grounded and accessible to an audience looking for a more gut-level connection. For one example, listen to the final half-minute, where a fast, free-form improvisation slows into a melodic and sentimental conclusion, while never quite losing its sense of spontaneity and wonder – ultimately resembling, but not quite matching, the original melody.

~ You may also like: Art Tatum, “Willow Weep for Me” (live: April 2, 1949; Gene Norma Presents an Art Tatum Concert, Columbia GL 101, 1952)

Sidney Bechet Quintet
Summertime(Blue Note 6, 1939)

“Summertime,” with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, is one of American music’s most enduring jazz and pop standards, and there are many top-notch renditions of it to chose from. One of the best is undeniably this instrumental Sidney Bechet recording from 1939. Bechet seizes upon the song’s underlying bittersweet tone and brings it to the surface with a soprano sax solo of exquisite depth. He shows great restraint, using the entire length of a 12" single to explore the song in greater detail while slowly building tension throughout. Even when that tension finally spills over into a wailing release, Bechet plays it close to the chest, muffling the volume and turning the emotion back in on itself.

The simple, spare accompaniment makes a wonderful companion to Bechet’s playing. Big Sid Catlett’s drums and John Williams’ bass measure a steady, plodding beat, with the drums becoming noticeably more forceful at times in parallel with Bechet’s playing. Meanwhile, Teddy Bunn’s guitar quietly picks out a bluesy countermelody that further fuels the song’s emotional fire. In all, it is a deeply intimate and beautiful performance and one of the best recordings of Bechet’s distinguished career.

~ You may also like: Tommy Ladnier and His Orchestra featuring Sidney Bechet, “Really the Blues” (Bluebird 10089, 1938)

Billie Holiday
Strange Fruit(Commodore 526, 1939)

I honestly don’t know how Holiday sang this song without getting choked up in the process. Such is the power of her performance that I find myself knotted up with anger and sadness every time I listen to it. The song’s subject matter is the lynching of African Americans throughout the segregated South: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swaying in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” The seemingly naïve lyrics paint an absolutely horrifying picture, and Holiday’s matter-of-fact delivery serves to underscore the heartbreaking sarcasm. Her voice only betrays emotion at the very end, as it rises dramatically to paint the final image of this “strange and bitter crop.”

Although Holiday’s voice is lovely as ever, that loveliness stands in stark contrast to the evil she sings about, and the impact of this reveals the underlying frustration and anger of the entire African American community. Holiday took a lot of criticism for performing such a controversial song, but a more powerful statement against this injustice was never made.

~ You may also like: Billie Holiday, “Gloomy Sunday” (Okeh 6451, 1941)

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