Milestone Recordings in American Music

Showing posts with label Louis Armstrong. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Louis Armstrong. Show all posts

9/19/10

Other Swing (1938)

While the dance-floor sound of big bands like those of Benny Goodman and Chick Webb was rapidly becoming the standard for swing music, there was still a great deal of flexibility in the form. The following selections show some of the interesting variety that one could find in jazz in 1938, featuring everything from Gypsy strings to 1920s-style small group jazz.

Le Quintette du Hot Club de France
Minor Swing (Swing 23, 1938)

Here is another amazing record from Europe’s top jazz band, featuring the incomparable Django Reinhardt on guitar and Stéphane Grappelli on violin. Songs played in a minor key tend to generate dramatic tension – an increased sense of seriousness or somberness. This one, played in the A-minor harmonic key, is no different, but rather than creating an uneasy mood, the band channels that tension into a feeling of exotic uncertainty. The talented musicians keep things upbeat and swinging even while they leave the listener wondering what’s next. From the opening bars, the record plays with our expectations. Grappelli plays a brief intro that is followed by a single note from the bass that seems to be going somewhere, but instead simply fades to nothing. Where we would expect the full band to enter, we instead find ourselves back at the beginning. Grappelli repeats his intro and then we are finally off and running.

Reinhardt takes the first solo, a dexterous, unpredictable turn that starts with some melodic, single-string slide playing and ends abruptly on a discordant note. At that point, Grappelli returns for his own solo (with Reinhardt continuing to add little touches in the background). Where Reinhardt's Gypsy-style guitar had been mysterious and withdrawn, Grappelli soars with forceful purpose. Someone shouts, “Come on!” in the middle, and Grappelli responds by becoming even more animated. The record ends with a little coda that features some great interaction between Grappelli and bassist Louis Vola, and then someone cries what we’ve all been thinking: “Oh yeah!”

~ You may also like one of the fastest things Reinhardt ever recorded: Le Quintette du Hot Club de France, “Limehouse Blues” (HMV K-7706, 1936)

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
When the Saints Go Marching In (Decca 2230, 1938)

In the tradition of New Orleans funeral processions, Armstrong recorded this gospel song set to jazz. It proved immensely popular and has been covered so often that today it is the first song that comes to most listeners’ minds when they think of New Orleans jazz. Like much of Louis Armstrong’s 1930s output, “When the Saints Go Marching In” is more a showcase for his butter-on-burnt-toast vocals that for his trumpet playing, but he does end the song with a rousing solo that reminds us of his talent on that instrument. The other solos are taken by J.C. Higginbotham on trombone (twice) and Charlie Holmes on alto sax, and they have a distinctly Dixieland feel, as opposed to the swinging big band tone of the rest of the record. The lyrics are very simple, but Armstrong’s distinct voice is enjoyable to listen to, as are his spoken asides (“Blow, brother Holmes!”) and the backup singers’ responses (“Marching in!”). This is joyous music, plain and simple. It may not be deep, but it is perfect for singing along.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, “I Double Dare You” (Decca 1636, 1938)

Eddie Condon and His Windy City Seven
Ja-Da(Commodore 500, 1938)

Eddie Condon was a seminal figure in the Chicago jazz scene in the 1920s, playing with the likes of Bix Beiderbecke, Gene Krupa, Jack Teagarden and Frank Teschemacher. He was a solid but not remarkable banjoist and guitarist, but his true gift was organizing top notch players into exceptional ensembles. After moving to New York in 1928, Condon broke down barriers by organizing interracial recording sessions with some of the top African-American artists of the day, including Henry “Red” Allen, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller. In the late ‘30s he assembled just such an interracial band that included some of New York’s finest musicians, and they would produce the best work of Condon’s career, including the lovely “Ja-Da.”

Although the swing era was already in full swing, Condon didn’t forget the older style of jazz he had played in the ‘20s in Chicago, and blended elements of it into swing to create his own unique sound. “Ja-Da” begins with some slow, old-style polyphony, with Bobby Hackett’s cornet carrying the lazy main melody while George Brunies and Pee Wee Russell add countermelodies on trombone and clarinet, respectively. Jess Stacy’s piano punctuates this and the rest of the song with spare, percussive notes that create a delicious contrast to the otherwise languid pace. After the opening section, Bud Freeman takes a long, mellow solo on tenor sax then Hackett returns to do the same on cornet. Mid-way through his solo, the accompaniment drops away and Hackett’s playing becomes much more forceful and staccato for a few bars before sliding back into mellow, dreamy territory. A brief solo by Russell on clarinet and a moment of soaring polyphony by the entire band bring the song to a close. This was the closest ting to Louis Armstrong’s groundbreaking Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions being made in 1938.

~ You may also like an earlier side featuring Condon on banjo and vocals, Frank Teschemacher on clarinet and a young Gene Krupa on drums: Eddie Condon Quartet, “(Back Home Again In) Indiana” (Parlophone R-2932, 1928)

4/12/09

Hi-De-Ho (1931)

Whether the jive of Cab Calloway, the tight swing of Duke Ellington, or the re-interpreted pop songs of Louis Armstrong, big band music in 1931 was all about entertainment. Fortunately for us, these bandleaders were not just entertainers but exceptional artists, creating timeless works that we can still enjoy today.

Cab Calloway and His Orchestra
Minnie the Moocher (Brunswick 6074, 1931)

When Duke Ellington’s orchestra ended its tenure as the house band of New York’s famed Cotton Club, they were replaced by a group led by Cabell Calloway III, who would soon become one of the most popular and commercially successful bandleaders of his day. Calloway’s orchestra was talented (though perhaps not at the level of Ellington’s), but what really made them so successful was the innovative singing and oversized personality of their leader. Calloway pioneered what was known as “jive” music: bluesy lyrics filled with slang words and scat singing (“hi-de-hi-de-ho”) set to swinging big band jazz.

“Minnie the Moocher” is Calloway’s undeniable masterpiece and the song that rocketed him to stardom. To mainstream audiences, the song told a slightly shady sounding story filled with a lot of silly nonsense. In reality, a lot of that nonsense was slang terminology that concealed references to illicit drug use: for example, “kicking the gong around” was a slang term for smoking opium. Either way it is viewed, the song is incredibly entertaining. Against some solid, “jungle” style instrumentation, Calloway’s voice rises and falls expressively as he tells Minnie’s tale, and he gets help from the band on some incredible call-and-response scat singing.

~ You may also like: Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, “Reefer Man” (Brunswick 6340, 1932)

Cab Calloway and His Orchestra
St. James Infirmary(Brunswick 6105, 1931)

There are many excellent versions of “St. James Infirmary,” including a famous 1928 recording by Louis Armstrong, but this Cab Calloway record may be the best of all. The song relates the story of a man whose love has just died and is “stretched out on a long, white table” at St. James Infirmary. Given the morbid nature of the song, Calloway’s version is surprisingly upbeat. It starts with an exotic sounding trumpet introduction, which is followed some wonderfully expressive baritone sax playing. Then Calloway begins singing, and his timing and timbre are amazing; at times he sings very fast in a high register and his voice sounds remarkably like a muted trumpet. The song then ends on a high note with some more excellent, exotic trumpet playing.

~ You may also like: Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, “(Hep-Hep!) The Jumpin’ Jive” (Vocalion v5005, 1939)

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Star Dust” (take 1) (Okeh 41530, 1931)

(Note: multiple takes of this song were recorded on November 4, 1931 and at least two were released as Okeh 41530. The fourth take is very good, but the essential version is the less common, slightly longer first take, Okeh master W.405061-1. On it, Armstrong repeats “Oh, memory” three times at the end of the vocal.)

In the 1930s, Louis Armstrong ceased making the kind of ground-breaking, small-band records that had redefined jazz during the previous decade. Instead, he focused on making jazzy, big band versions of popular songs, such as Hoagy Carmichael’s immortal “Star Dust.” Although this decision made him a huge star, it continues to disappoint some jazz fans who consider the move a sell out. However, while his 1930s output is nowhere near as innovative as his ‘20s “Hot Five” records, looked at from another angle, it could be argued that Armstrong made the most compelling mainstream pop of the decade.

On “Star Dust,” his trumpet playing is strong as ever, with a tone that has matured like a fine wine into something utterly intoxicating. The band playing behind him may be unremarkable, but that trumpet is still unmatched. And Armstrong’s voice has similarly matured, the gruff edges blending smoothly into the sweet melody. Just listen to the sentimental way he repeats “Oh, memory / Oh, memory / Oh, memory” at the end. Simply amazing.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, “Lazy River” (Okeh 41541, 1932)

Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra
Casa Loma Stomp(Okeh 41492, 1931)

The Casa Loma Orchestra, a collective led by saxophonist Glen Gray, was one of the top big bands of its day and a major trendsetter in swing music. Although they are not as well remembered as some of the other top bands of the early swing period, records like “Casa Loma Stomp” prove that them deserving of respect. The complex arrangement by Gene Gifford is played with incredible poise and proficiency. That they make it sound so light and effortless only makes it that much more impressive. The entire record is fantastic, but pay special attention to two particularly good passages: the first solo (a fast-paced revelry by trombonist Pee Wee Hunt) and the quiet but kinetic call-and-response by the entire band before they launch into the big finish.

~ You may also like: Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, “San Sue Strut” (Okeh 41403, 1930)

The Jungle Band
Rockin’ in Rhythm(Brunswick 6038, 1931)

This “Jungle Band” recording of Duke Ellington’s classic composition “Rockin’ in Rhythm” was one of two Ellington versions released in 1931, and to my ears is the definitive take on the song. (It should be noted that Okeh 8869, credited to the Harlem Footwarmers, is nearly as good, though.) The track begins with some discordant piano by Ellington, and a humorous wah-wah by the trombone. Next, the reeds state the wonderful, bright melody and Cootie Williams takes a playful, swinging solo on trumpet. The mood becomes a little edgier as Johnny Hodges soars in on alto sax . Then we get some more piano from Ellington, another trombone flourish, and some muted, jungle-style trumpet from Williams before the reeds regain control, restate the main melody and bring the record to a close. The recording is filled with high-spirited, feel-good energy throughout.

~ You may also like an incredible later recording of this song: Duke Ellington, “Medley: Kinda Dukish / Rockin’ in Rhythm” (Piano in the Background, Columbia CL 1546, 1960)

3/29/09

Happy Days (1930)

The world may have been in an economic depression, but one never would have known that listening to the music being made in 1930.

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1930 Headlines … Worldwide Great Depression worsens … Radio mystery program The Shadow debuts … Construction is begun on the Boulder Dam (Hoover Dam) … The BBC begins regular TV transmission in U.K.
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Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
St. Louis Blues (Okeh 41350, 1930)

This is the second recording Louis Armstrong made of W.C. Handy’s classic “St. Louis Blues.” The first was a slow, heartfelt recording in 1925 with Armstrong on cornet and blues great Bessie Smith on vocals. This version is every bit as brilliant, but that is where the comparison stops, because the two sound nothing alike. Armstrong takes the same Handy melody as a starting point, but creates his own unique interpretation of it: he speeds it up, adds exotic percussion and jazz instrumentation, and improvises like mad. Not only does he add his own unique spin to the melody, but he throws the original lyrics away and starts over from scratch. He sings lines like, “I believe in my soul my baby’s tryin’ to quit me,” but there is no trace of melancholy. Instead, Armstrong’s vocals are as exuberant as his trumpet playing. And his trumpet playing is phenomenal, especially in the song’s final minute where Armstrong abandons the original melody all together and soars into the stratosphere with some unbelievably joyous improvisation. It is nothing less than we have come to expect from him, but for the mainstream audiences who were just starting to pay attention to him, this must have been quite a revelation.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five, “St. James Infirmary” (Okeh 8657, 1929)

Louis Armstrong
Weather Bird(Okeh 41454, 1930)

The first record released under just Armstrong’s name was actually a duet with pianist Earl Hines. It was recorded in Chicago in December 1928 but not issued until nearly two years later in October 1930. Compare it with other any other jazz record made during this time, and you’ll see why: this is revolutionary stuff that did not easily fit into the rest of Armstrong’s cannon. Armstrong is as impressive as ever, but he actually plays it fairly straightforward. It is Hines that steals the show, as he turns all previous notions of jazz piano inside out, sounding like nothing that had ever been heard before. We had been given some glimpses into Hines’ revolutionary style in his previous work on Armstrong’s Hot Five recordings, but not to this degree. He sounds twenty years ahead of his time, as he plays fast and loose with the tempo and bangs out a series of what at times sounds like completely random notes. Despite the perceived chaos, however, there is a method to Hines’ madness and it all fits together brilliantly. For example, listen to his solo about half-way through, where his two hands seem to be playing two different songs, and at times even two different tempos, but they somehow come together again just before Armstrong re-enters. Its complexity makes “Weather Bird” a challenge to listen to, but also a delight. This is where modern jazz begins.

~ You may also like: Earl Hines, “57 Varieties” (Okeh 8653, 1929)

Ben Selvin and His Orchestra
Happy Days Are Here Again (Columbia 2116-D, 1930)

This song was written in 1929 and first recorded in November of that year by Leo Reisman and His Orchestra (Victor 22221), soon after the Black Tuesday stock market crash that marked the start of the Great Depression. Popular band leader Ben Selvin had a big hit with it the following year, and Franklin D. Roosevelt revived it as his Presidential campaign theme song in 1932. It is an enjoyable piece that captures its time well. The lyrics paint an unabashedly sunny picture: “Your cares and troubles are gone / There'll be no more from now on.” However, the singing in Selvin’s version is very reserved and mostly sticks to the lower registers, suggesting a cautious optimism. The instruments are also mostly toned down, although there are a few showy flashes, which become more pronounced toward the end, finishing the song on a high note.

~ You may also like: Claude Hopkins And His Orchestra, “Mush Mouth” (Columbia 2674-D, 1932)

Fred Astaire
Puttin’ On the Ritz(Columbia DB 96, 1930)

Fred Astaire’s first claim to fame was his marvelous dancing, which he expertly displayed in many of Hollywood’s biggest musicals. He also had a pleasant singing voice that helped him score several chart hits, including this classic Irving Berlin number. Most of Astaire’s better known hits were sung in a sweet, “crooning” style, but this record is fiery by comparison. Not only is the instrumentation feisty, but Astaire proves himself adept at jazz singing, with loads of expression and a swinging approach to timing. The tap dancing interludes are also well done, the tapping syncing nicely with the bouncing rhythm section.

Incidentally, this is the first recording on this list made outside of the United States: Astaire cut this record while on tour in London in March 1930.

~ You may also like the first British jazz record to gain popularity in America: Fred Elizalde and His Music featuring Al Bowlly, “If I Had You” (British Brunswick 3948, 1928)

3/25/09

Louis & Orchestra (1929)

In 1929, Louis Armstrong moved back to New York and Okeh began billing his band as the “Savoy Ballroom Five,” but like the previous “Hot Five” records, the personnel involved varied. On “Mahogany Hall Stomp” (recorded in March 1929 and released in April), the group grew to 10 musicians, which would prompt Okeh to bill all subsequent ensembles as an “Orchestra.” (This would be true even of “Basin Street Blues” and “Muggles,” which had actually been recorded in late 1928 in Chicago with a smaller band of six musicians, but were not released until May and July of 1929, respectively.)

Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five
Mahogany Hall Stomp (Okeh 8680, 1929)

“Mahogany Hall Stomp” is incredibly fun to listen to. The song starts off with a straight-ahead solo by Armstrong on trumpet followed by a short, enjoyable stretch by Albert Nichols on alto sax, and some fancy guitar work by Lonnie Johnson. Then Armstrong returns with a mute, and heats things up quite a bit. As he did on “West End Blues,” Armstrong brilliantly sustains a single note over several bars, this time with Lonnie Johnson picking out a quiet melody behind him on guitar. Armstrong fades the note to a whisper in the middle, then crescendos and comes out at the end with a series of very controlled, staccato notes that allow the rhythm section to rise to the foreground with a compelling beat. As Armstrong finishes, J.C. Higginbotham enters on trombone and keeps the fun going with a very swinging solo. Armstrong then comes back without the mute to finish things up. Throughout the song, the band plays in an easy-going style that is halfway between New Orleans jazz and big band swing, with a prominent bass line that keeps things jumping and makes it hard not to tap your toes.

~ You may also like the B-side of the original single: Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five, “Beau Koo Jack” (Okeh 8680, 1929)

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Basin Street Blues (Okeh 8690, 1929)

“Basin Street Blues” (named after a street in New Orleans’ French Quarter) is a much softer recording that features Armstrong and Earl Hines passing the melody back and forth. The record begins with a quiet introduction featuring Hines on the celesta, a piano-like instrument with a tinkling sound similar to a music box. Armstrong then enters with a reserved trumpet solo, followed by Hines similarly reserved on piano. Armstrong then adds some soft, sweet scat singing (with Hines and banjo player Mancy Carr humming softly behind him), and Hines adds some more piano. Armstrong comes back with a more forceful trumpet solo that soars higher and higher, and the rest of the band rises to meet him (especially Fred Robinson on trombone). Armstrong then softens again and fades out, as Hines re-enters on celesta to bring the lullaby to a beautiful close.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, “A Monday Date” (Okeh 8609, 1928)

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Muggles (Okeh 8703, 1929)

“Muggles” is one of Armstrong’s subtle masterpieces. Like “Basin Street Blues,” it is a slower number that takes its time unfolding before reaching a crescendo and then fading out again at the end. Earl Hines starts things off with a quiet but very inventive piano solo. Fred Robinson and Jimmy Strong then add mellow solos on trombone and clarinet, respectively – both of which reflect rather well on the song’s title, which was slang for marijuana. Armstrong then enters with a forceful trumpet solo. At this point, the rhythm section initially starts playing double time, and the excitement level ramps up significantly, but they soon slow back down and Armstrong’s solo becomes very mellow itself. Hines returns at the end with some more noteworthy piano improvisation behind Armstrong’s solo.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, “Wild Man Blues” (Okeh 8474, 1927)

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Ain’t Misbehavin’(Okeh 8714, 1929)

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” was written by Fats Waller, who made a solo piano recording of it in 1929. It was also featured in the hit Harlem show Hot Chocolates that year, where it was performed to great reviews by none other than Louis Armstrong. It would become one of his signature songs, and this record shows why. Although well executed, the recording doesn’t break any new ground for him in terms of trumpet playing. (He still manages to make it exciting, though, especially at the end, where he finishes on a high note – both literally and figuratively.) However, it features some great singing from Armstrong that shows his ability to improvise vocally as well as with his trumpet. He varies the melody, the words and the timing as he sings, making everything sound effortless while creating a blueprint that top jazz singers continue to follow.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” (Okeh 41550, 1932)

3/15/09

West End Blues (1928)

In 1929, Louis Armstrong would return to New York and would work from that point on with a full orchestra. First, though, he would spend 1928 making several more classic small-group recordings in Chicago, including some that would rank among the best of his career, like the immortal “West End Blues.”

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Hotter Than That(Okeh 8535, 1928)

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Struttin’ with Some Barbecue(Okeh 8566, 1928)

After the Hot Seven recordings in the spring of 1927, Louis Armstrong’s group returned to its classic Hot Five lineup, which would last for only a few more sessions. These two selections were both written by Armstrong’s wife, Lil, and feature some of the group’s best work.

For “Hotter Than That,” the ensemble could have actually been called a Hot Six, because they are joined by Lonnie Johnson on guitar. The record sets the tone early with solos from Armstrong on cornet and Johnny Dodds on clarinet. Then Louis Armstrong launches into a long scat singing section, which evolves into a mellow but riveting exchange between his voice and Johnson’s expertly picked guitar. Lil Hardin Armstrong’s booming piano jump starts the action again, and the band kicks back in as lively as ever. Kid Ory gives us a short, swinging solo on trombone, then Armstrong’s cornet takes over. The band backs him up with a little stop-time playing, and then Johnson’s guitar returns for some more quick fingerpicking to end the song.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, “Fireworks” (Okeh 8597, 1928)

“Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” evolves so wonderfully throughout the course of the record that by the time it returns to the main theme again at the end, it almost sounds like a completely different song. It starts with some fantastic interplay between Armstrong’s cornet, Ory’s trombone and Dodds’ clarinet. The three then take turns soloing: first Dodds, then Ory, then Armstrong. It all sounds incredible: this is a fantastic melody and the soloists do a wonderful job with it. Then the real fireworks happens, just over two minutes into the song, as the band starts playing stop-time and Armstrong’s cornet kicks things up a notch. And again, as good as it was at the beginning, by the time the song reaches the final few bars, with the band all playing stop-time in unison, it is magical.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven, “Willie the Weeper” (Okeh 8482, 1927)

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
West End Blues (Okeh 8597, 1928)

Armstrong reassembled his “Hot Five” band in June 1928, but with entirely new personnel. Despite such changes, the group was able to continue making some incredible music, including this recording of the Joe “King” Oliver composition “West End Blues” (named for a section of New Orleans). In fact, this would prove to be the single most beautiful record Armstrong would ever make: every note is simply perfect.

The record starts with a dramatic call-to-arms from Armstrong’s cornet, which effortlessly glides into an easy-going twelve-bar blues. Fred Robinson’s trombone takes the first solo atop some atypical, clinking percussion from Zutty Singleton (whose presence actually made this group a “Hot Six”). Jimmy Strong’s clarinet then trades off in a duet with Louis Armstrong’s very relaxed and peaceful scat singing. Earl Hines, one of the all-time great jazz pianists, then takes a turn with a very inventive solo that manages to be technically impressive while maintaining the easy-going flow of the song.

Next comes Louis Armstrong with one of the most famous solos in jazz history. Listen to how he sustains the opening note: even though the pitch stays constant, he brings that single note to life with vibrato and changes in volume, until the pent up energy finally comes tumbling out in the end in an impressive cascade of notes. Like Hines’ solo earlier, Armstrong manages to sound fresh and innovative without losing the song’s easy-swinging spirit. It is a sublime moment, over far too soon, that both sums up everything he has done to that point and shrewdly predicts the possibilities jazz has left to explore. A final strike of the woodblock from Zutty Singleton puts an exclamation point on this record, the pinnacle of 1920s jazz.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five, “Tight Like This” (Okeh 8649, 1928)

2/26/09

Stunning Jazz (1927)

Jelly Roll Morton may have reached the pinnacle of New Orleans jazz with his Red Hot Peppers band, but there was a wealth of other exceptional jazz released in 1927. Morton dazzled just as much in a smaller group, Fletcher Henderson kept pushing the boundaries of big band jazz, and Louis Armstrong abandoned the blueprint mid-song and transcended jazz all together.

Jelly Roll Morton
Wolverine Blues (Victor 21064, 1927)

After his Red Hot Peppers sessions in 1927, Morton took a break to record one of his most famous compositions accompanied only by the Dodds brothers: Johnny on clarinet and Baby on drums. This tune was originally written as ragtime, and indeed for the first half of the record, Morton plays it as a straightforward, solo rag. Morton was one of the best ragtime pianists in New Orleans, and his playing here is marvelous, but there is very little in it that hints of jazz. Then, about half way in, Johnny and Baby enter and it starts to swing. Johnny carries the frontline by himself for a while, not straying too far from main melody, as his brother and Morton play softly in the background. Then the other two start to play more forcefully, Johnny’s playing gets more inventive, and the whole thing really starts to cook. By the end, it has transformed into full-scale hot New Orleans jazz without a hint of ragtime.

~ You may also like Morton’s original, solo piano version of “Wolverine Blues” (Gennett 5289, 1923)

Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra
Fidgety Feet (Vocalion 1092, 1927)

This classic is the most kinetic thing Henderson’s band ever recorded. Coleman Hawkins (tenor sax) and Buster Bailey (clarinet) are absolutely brilliant as they trade solos in the first half, and trumpeter Tommy Ladnier and trombonist Jimmy Harrison do an admirable job when the brass instruments take over in the second half. Throughout, the playing skitters to and fro with the kind of nervous energy implied by the title.

~ You may also like: Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra, “Variety Stomp” (Harmony 451-H, 1927)

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven
Potato Head Blues (Okeh 8503, 1927)

In May 1927, Louis Armstrong temporarily expanded his Hot Five band to a Hot Seven with the addition of tuba (Pete Briggs) and drums (Baby Dodds). Although the work continued to be of exceptional quality in general, one song from these sessions stands out as an all-time classic: “Potato Head Blues.” (Don’t let the title fool you: this is not a silly or humorous song; it is actually quite beautiful.) For about the first two minutes, it fits right in with what we have come to expect from Armstrong and his crew: an incredible, memorable melody and superlative musicianship. Armstrong and Johnny Dodds play together, then take turns soloing, and it is all stunning to be sure, but we have come to expect stunning.

Then, after a brief banjo interlude, we reach the final minute, and discover that Armstrong has been holding back. He now launches into a solo that will stop you in your tracks. It is haunting, absolutely hauntingly beautiful. The band plays extreme stop-time behind him, and it is amazing that such discipline and sense of swing can exist in the same space. Armstrong’s trademark timbre is laid bare in the gaps left by the band, and… words fail to describe it adequately. Suffice it to say, this is Armstrong’s most perfect moment.

The rest of the band eventually starts playing fully again, but Armstrong doesn’t make any adjustments: he just keeps playing this magnificent solo and overpowers everything else. It is a magnificent ending. Go listen to it!

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven, “Gully Low Blues” (Okeh 8474, 1927)

2/19/09

The New Hot (1926)

While hot big band jazz was just starting to simmer, small group jazz was already cooking. The next few years would see it reach its zenith with groundbreaking performances by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and others.

King Oliver’s Jazz Band
Snag It (Vocalion 1007, 1926)

(Note: there were two takes of this song, both released as Vocalion 1007. Both are good, but the second take, session no. E-2635, is the better of the two and the one discussed here. The first take, E-2634, contains more ensemble playing and less soloing. It also contains vocals by Richard M. Jones – “Oh, Snag It! Snag It!” – that are not found in the more famous second take.)

Joe Oliver may not have achieved the career heights of his former protégé Louis Armstrong, but as “Snag It” shows, there was a reason they called him King. This record contains some of the most memorable playing of his career. His cornet is in control right from the start, kicking things off with a wailing call and then leading the rest of the band swirling behind it. The band is simply magnificent, especially some almost-squeaky, staccato accents from tenor saxophonist Barney Bigard and a slow, yearning solo from Kid Ory on trombone. After the solos, Oliver returns with a brisk, eight-bar solo that sounds like a rallying cry and stands in brilliant contrast to the generally relaxed feel of the rest of the song. The band then once again weaves beautiful ensemble work behind Oliver’s magnificent cornet as he winds things down and slowly brings the record to a conclusion.

~ You may also like: King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, “Canal Street Blues” (Gennett 5133, 1923)

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Muskrat Ramble(Okeh 8300, 1926)

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Heebie Jeebies(Okeh 8300, 1926)

After his stint with Fletcher Henderson, Armstrong returned to Chicago and finally put together a band of his own. That group was a who’s who of jazz greats dubbed the “Hot Five,” and while it really only existed in the studio, that was enough to cement Armstrong’s legacy. In addition to Armstrong, there was first and foremost the legendary Kid Ory on trombone. This was the man who was credited for single-handedly defining the role of the trombone in New Orleans jazz, who had given Joe Oliver the nickname “King” when he served in Ory’s band, and who had cut the first record by an African American jazz band (“Ory’s Creole Trombone” in 1922). In addition, Armstrong recruited fellow King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band veterans Johnny Dodds on clarinet (who was himself approaching legendary status), Johnny St. Cyr on banjo, and Lil Hardin Armstrong on piano. Lil and Louis had married in 1924, and it was she who convinced Louis to return to Chicago.

The band first entered the studio in November 1925, and the results were instant magic. The following February they recorded a slew of new songs and found their first hit in Kid Ory’s “Muskrat Ramble.” That Armstrong is fantastic almost goes without saying, but Kid Ory comes close to outshining him. In fact, the entire band is incredibly tight, but it is Ory’s trombone that ties it all together, matching Armstrong note for note and underscoring his best moments with a slow slide. It is arguably the best trombone jazz part ever recorded.

~ You may also like the first recording ever released of New Orleans jazz featuring African American musicians: Kid Ory’s Original Creole Jazz Band, “Ory’s Creole Trombone” (Sunshine 3003, 1922)

Amazingly, the other side of the “Muskrat Ramble” record was every bit as good. “Heebie Jeebies” starts out with a melody so pure and so wonderfully performed by the band that the song would have surely been considered a classic on that strength alone. But what truly makes this special is Louis Armstrong’s first-ever vocal performance on record. Over St. Cyr’s simple but swinging banjo part, Armstrong’s unmistakable voice is raspy but rich as he proceeds to sing and scat the most wonderful nonsense. (Sample line: “Sweet mama, papa’s got to do the Heebie Jeebies dance.”)

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, “Dropping Shucks” (Okeh 8357, 1926)

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Cornet Chop Suey (Okeh 8320, 1926)

“Cornet Chop Suey” is yet another undeniable classic recorded in the same February 1926 session as “Muskrat Ramble” and “Heebie Jeebies.” The degree of innovation here is unbelievable, as the band puts on a clinic on timing. Armstrong has two memorable solos here that make use of stop-time playing (where the normal rhythm is disrupted by brief periods of silence). The first contains a section where the entire band stops and starts in unison with him, and Johnny Dodds mirrors him note for note. In the second solo, the band again stops and starts in unison, but Armstrong’s timing is more loose as he plays – brilliantly – during the gaps to varying degrees.

This record sometimes gets overlooked in the Armstrong cannon just because 1927’s “Potato Head Blues” is the most impressive and beautiful display of stop-time ever recorded, but Armstrong’s playing on “Cornet Chop Suey” is so fresh and imaginative that the record really deserves to stand on its own.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, “Big Butter and Egg Man from the West” (Okeh 8423, 1927)

Johnny Hamp’s Kentucky Serenaders
Black Bottom (Victor 20101, 1926)

The Black Bottom was a dance that became a craze in 1926 and briefly overtook the Charleston as the most popular dance. After the dance was featured in several stage shows, popular bandleader Johnny Hamp and his group capitalized on its success with this superb record. If you compare this to what Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton was doing at the time, you will notice how straight-forward the solos are and how little improvisation there is. But while this was less technically impressive, it was still surprisingly good jazz, with a sense of fun that cannot be denied. The musicianship and timing are first rate as the different instruments dance in and out of the tune for a few notes at a time. And there are numerous whimsical little touches that keep you on your toes: from the opening call of “Do-do-do-di-lo” to a few unexpected strikes of the woodblock. The best touch, though is the handclapping at about the two minute mark: priceless.

~ You may also like: Abe Lyman’s California Orchestra, “Shake That Thing” (Brunswick 3069, 1926)

Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers
Black Bottom Stomp (Victor 20221, 1926)

Jelly Roll Morton was a was a larger-than-life character who got his start playing piano as a teenager in seedy establishments in “Storyville,” New Orleans’s red-light district. He soon grew into jazz’s first great pianist and composer. Working in Chicago in 1926, he assembled a studio group of some of jazz’s brightest stars. Called the Red Hot Peppers, they soon began a string of some of the most exciting jazz records ever made.

“Black Bottom Stomp” (reportedly named by Morton after the Black Bottom neighborhood in Detroit, and not necessarily for that year’s dance craze) was the group’s first hit, and is an excellent example of Morton’s ability as an arranger: as good as Morton is on the piano, the band is his real instrument here. Morton gets the most out of his musicians (who included trombonist Kid Ory and banjoist Johnny St. Cyr from Louis Armstrong's band), maintaining high levels of both energy and virtuosity throughout. The pace is frenetic and the instruments often seem to be running wild, and yet it all fits together brilliantly.

~ You may also like: Jelly Roll Morton and His Orchestra, “Burnin’ the Iceberg” (Victor V-38075, 1929)

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)

2/16/09

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
Charleston
(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)

2/13/09

Variety (1924-1925)

After the success of country and blues records in 1923, the recording companies became a lot more adventurous. The releases of 1924 and ’25 saw veterans like Uncle Dave Macon and Ma Rainey, as well as newcomers like opera-singer-turned-hillbilly Vernon Dalhart. They also included the first male blues recordings, the first singing cowboy recordings, and a dynamic new style of banjo playing.

Vernon Dalhart
The Prisoner’s Song (Victor 19427, 1924)

Vernon Dalhart was an opera singer by training, but decided in 1924 to try his hand at the fledgling “hillbilly” market. It was a gamble that paid off in 1925, as “The Prisoner’s Song” became the first country record to sell over a million copies. The record was designed to appeal to mainstream audiences, and was a far cry from the down-home, fiddle-and-banjo music he was imitating. Although he affected a southern-sounding accent, his voice was clearly that of a trained singer, and his accompaniment was smooth and highly orchestrated. The end result is pleasant, if somewhat saccharine, and served as further proof of the commercial potential for country music.

Note the traditional melody in this song, which has to be the most successful in the history of country music. It would be used in several other high-profile country records through the years, including “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” by The Carter Family in 1929, “The Great Speckled Bird” by Roy Acuff in 1936, and two classics in 1952: Hank Thompson’s chart-topping “The Wild Side of Life” and the even more successful “answer record” to this, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” by Kitty Wells.

~ You may also like: Wendell Hall, “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’” (Victor 19171, 1923)

Ernest Thompson
Are You From Dixie? (Columbia 130-D, 1924)

As the demand for “hillbilly” music became clear, record companies looked to duplicate the success of artists like John Carson and Eck Robertson. One of the first country acts signed and promoted by Columbia was Ernest Thompson, a blind singer and musician from North Carolina. Unfortunately, Thompson never quite achieved the success Columbia predicted, and he remains underappreciated to this day. Part of this may be due to his unusual style – strangely high vocals accompanied by guitar and harmonica instead of the more common fiddle and banjo. Listen to his records today, however, and his talent and influence are clear.

“Are You From Dixie?” is Thompson’s best record, and it would go on to become something of a country music standard. Thompson’s delivery is earnest and enthusiastic as he sings the nostalgic lyrics: “My home’s a way down in Alabam’ / On a plan’ation near Birmingham / There’s one thing certain / I’m surely flirting with those south-bound trains.” There is a touch of yearning in his voice every time he says, “I’m from Dixie too!” and the urgency increases in the final minute as his guitar and harmonica play to an ever-increasing tempo.

~ You may also like: Ernest Thompson, “Red Wing” (Columbia 190-D, 1924)

Uncle Dave Macon
Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy (Vocalion 14848, 1924)

Uncle Dave Macon was already in his 50s when his recording career began in 1924. A master showman who combined humor and old-fashioned banjo playing, Macon would later become a mainstay in The Grand Ole Opry, a weekly radio broadcast that would emerge in the 1930s as the definitive word in country music. This is one of his first recordings and a particularly entertaining one. The recording is scratchy, but Macon’s strong, colorful voice comes through well and pushes the song forward. You will feel like singing along every time he says, “Keep my skillet good and greasy all the time, time, time!"

Be forewarned, though, that the “N” word makes an unfortunate appearance in the final verse. It is used so matter-of-factly that in later performances Macon was able to (wisely) change the line to “There’s a man on that log” without really altering the intent or meaning. But in these very early days of “hillbilly” music, with the minstrel tradition still not far removed, recordings were not yet made with a larger, more sensitive audience in mind.

~ You may also like: Uncle Dave Macon, “Old Dan Tucker” (Vocalion 5061, 1925)

Ma Rainey
Shave ‘Em Dry Blues
(Paramount 12222, 1924)

Next to Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey is the best-remembered of the classic female blues singers. When she began her recording career in 1923, she was already a twenty-year veteran of the vaudeville circuit and had served as an inspiration to younger blues singers like Smith. Unlike most 1920s recordings by female blues artists,
this song forgoes jazz instrumentation in favor of a simple guitar (played by legendary bluesman Tampa Red). However, it actually has a much more animated, ragtime feel than many of her other recordings – a reminder that early guitar blues was actually a lot more diverse than most people realize. Like Smith, Rainey had a gift that transcended the poor recording technology available to her. Her singing here sounds relaxed and smooth, and yet her powerful, vaudeville-trained voice comes across loud and clear despite the hissing and popping.

~ You may also like: Ma Rainey, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Paramount 12590, 1927)

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1925 Headlines … Calvin Coolidge begins second term as 30th U.S. President … “Scopes Monkey Trial” outlaws teaching evolution in schools … Country-variety show The Grand Ole Opry makes its radio debut
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Ma Rainey & Her Georgia Jazz Band
See See Rider Blues
(Paramount 12252, 1925)

This Rainey original is one of the most covered blues songs of all time (sometimes written “C.C. Rider”), but the original recording is hard to beat. Here, Rainey lets loose with perhaps the most impassioned vocal of her career. The songs tells a classic tale of heartache fromthe point of view of a woman whose lover has jilted her for another: “See See Rider / See what you done, done / You made me love you / Now your gal’s done come.” Again, Rainey’s singing is just amazing. At points, the instruments wail in unison with her (including Louis Armstrong on cornet), but can hardly compete with her powerful voice.

~ You may also like: Ida Cox, “Death Letter Blues” (Paramount 12220, 1924)

Bessie Smith
St. Louis Blues
(Columbia 14064-D, 1925)

W.C. Handy was the first great blues composer, and was responsible more than anyone else for standardizing the twelve-bar blues format that almost all blues songs now adhere to. “St. Louis Blues” is his most famous composition. First published in 1914, it has gone on to become one of the most recorded songs in history. This version, however, remains just about definitive. The song has been slowed down to a crawl and is essentially turned into a duet between Smith’s expressive voice and Louis Armstrong’s melancholy trumpeting. It is a genius pairing, and from Smith’s opening line (“I hate to see the evening sun go down”) to Armstrong’s final flourish, every moment is imbued with powerful emotion from one, the other or both.

~ You may also like another Bessie Smith recording featuring Louis Armstrong, “Careless Love Blues” (Columbia 14083-D, 1925)

Lonnie Johnson
Mr. Johnson’s Blues (Okeh 8253, 1925)

Alonzo “Lonnie” Johnson was one of the most important blues musicians of the pre-war era, and he even made a successful transition to rhythm & blues for a time after World War II. He was a frequent collaborator, accompanying blues artists like Victoria Spivey and Texas Alexander, as well as jazz artists like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Indeed, Johnson’s guitar playing was more jazz- like than anything else, and he may have been even more influential in the jazz world than in the blues. And his best recordings, such a series of duets with jazz guitarist Eddie Lang in 1929, transcend all categorization.

“Mr. Johnson’s Blues,” his first solo single, perfectly demonstrates how he straddled the line between jazz and blues. He only bothers to sing a single verse, letting his guitar do the talking for the rest of the song. And what talking it does! His finger work is amazing, improvising like the jazz guitarists of his day could only dream of doing. A nice interlude by pianist John Arnold at the end almost erases all memory that this record started as a somewhat straightforward country blues. Like all of Johnson’s work, this record was way ahead of its time.

~ You may also like the B-side of this single, featuring Lonnie Johnson on violin instead of guitar: “Falling Rain Blues” (Okeh 8253, 1925)

Papa Charlie Jackson
Shake That Thing
(Paramount 12281, 1925)

In 1920, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” created a commercial demand for female blues recordings, but it would take until 1924 for minstrel show veteran Papa Charlie Jackson to break that barrier for male blues artists. “ Shake That Thing” is one of his best: an upbeat, feel-good hokum played on Jackson’s hybrid banjo-guitar. Note how different Jackson’s “songster” blues is from the standard, twelve-bar blues we are used to today. The blues tradition evolved from a rich variety of sources, and this diversity was reflected in the wealth of different blues styles that competed for attention before WWII. We are fortunate to have a record of unique performers like Jackson, whose style has never been duplicated.

~ You may also like: Papa Charlie Jackson, “Salty Dog” (Paramount 12236, 1924)

Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers
Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues
(Columbia 15038-D, 1925)

The North Carolina Ramblers were one of the most popular rural string bands of the 1920s. The trio (banjo, fiddle and guitar) was led by Charlie Poole, a gifted banjo player who lived fast and died young, drinking himself to death at the age of 40 in 1931. Part of what made Poole’s banjo playing so compelling was a unique fingerpicking style that allowed him to coax a much more dynamic sound from his instrument than someone using the standard “clawhammer” style of the era. While it was not directly copied, this unique style would serve as a profound influence on bluegrass musicians decades later.

And listening to “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” you can hear why: Poole’s banjo is a whirl of activity from start to finish, picking out a kinetic countermelody that ultimately outshines the lead fiddle part. Poole’s singing is a little subdued compared with his later recordings, but the vocals are really an afterthought here: the bar had been raised for string bands everywhere.

~ You may also like:Charlie Poole’s North Carolina Ramblers, “Take a Drink on Me” (Columbia 15193-D, 1927)

Carl T. Sprague
When the Work’s All Done This Fall
(Victor 19747, 1925)

Although the cowboy way of life was largely obsolete by the turn of the twentieth century, a nostalgic fascination for the Old West was growing among the American public. This was the first recorded “singing cowboy” song, and it was an unqualified hit, selling 900,000 copies. By the mid-1930s, singing cowboys were a mainstay in Hollywood, and their sound had moved closer to pop. Early cowboy songs such as this, however, were still rough around the edges, more accurately reflecting the roots of a music that evolved as a way for cowboys to pass the time on the open range.

This is a very simple, direct song, carried by Sprague’s sad, sweet voice and a gentle, understated guitar. It tells the tale of a cowboy who has grown weary and plans to return home in the fall, but then gets caught in a stampede and dies from his wounds. At the end the music slows suddenly for effect as the narrator reveals the cowboy’s fate: “He’ll not see his mother when the work’s all done this fall.”

~ You may also like something from the first singing cowboy of the movies: Ken Maynard, “The Lone Star Trail” (Columbia 2310-D, 1930)

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