It’s that point in the semester when I end up having more informal conversations with students about their aspirations. Today I was talking to a young man who is taking a jazz course and plays guitar. Blues guitar, it turns out. Immediately, I said, “I’m going to give you homework. Listen to Teddy Bunn!” and he copied down the unfamiliar name. Over the years, I’ve urged other guitar-playing students to devote themselves to Teddy Bunn’s recorded work. Today, for the first time, I thought to myself, “Why Teddy Bunn rather than Charlie Christian or Django Reinhardt?”
For me, the answer is in Bunn’s emotional accessibility. To young guitarists raised on flamethrowing displays of technique (usually electrified) Bunn might sound unambitious. But he has a country-blues depth of feeling: his simple phrases come from someplace that belies his birthplace — Freeport, Long Island, perhaps twenty-five miles from where I am now writing and certainly miles away from the Mississippi Delta. His blues phrases are plain-spoken, logical, affecting. But he also has a distinctly urban swing: if you had Teddy Bunn in your rhythm section, you hardly needed anyone else.
And I am always trying to consider what my students might have heard before — and how my frankly antiquarian tastes in music will strike them. To get to Charlie Christian, they have to get past the “Swing Era” in the person of Benny Goodman, although I suppose some of them could go directly to Jerry Newman’s recordings of Christian, uptown. And to get to Django, they have to make a detour around Grappelly and the Quintet.
Bunn’s simplicity is deceptive. It would please me immensely to have one of my self-possessed young players say to himself, “Oh, I can do that,” and try to duplicate a Bunn solo — a simple twelve bars — and then realize that his imitation was lacking something essential — perhaps in its tonal qualities or its rhythmic subtleties. I imagine that Teddy Bunn might teach someone more about inventiveness and humility than I had been able to in fifteen weeks in a classroom. (Charles Peterson caught him in action at a 1939 Blue Note session with trumpeter Frank Newton, who is standing in front of Sidney Catlett . . . fast company!)
A place to find out some more about Teddy Bunn is Mike Kremer’s CLASSIC JAZZ GUITAR site, http://classicjazzguitar.com/aboutus/about_us.jsp, the source of the images here.
During his lifetime, everyone knew about Teddy Bunn. Sammy Price called him for the Decca “race records” sessions of the late Thirties; he was a charter member of the Spirits of Rhythm, also accompanying Ella Logan and Red McKenzie; he sat in with the Ellington band in 1929; Mezzrow and Bechet made good use of his talents, as did Hot Lips Page, Clarence Profit, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Noone, and Spencer Williams. Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff made him part of their early Blue Note sessions and gave him a four-song solo date of his own. Later on, he pops up (now playing electric guitar) with Lionel Hampton, Hadda Brooks, and others. Unfortunately, he didn’t get much attention in the Fifties, and a combination of poor health, early rock ‘n’ roll, and gigs in Hawaii kept him out of the public eye as far as jazz was concerned. I do recall a late interview (done by Peter Tanner for JAZZ JOURNAL, if memory serves me) where Bunn talked about his older recordings and was thrilled to hear them again.
Here are some samples of the man whose name comes first to my lips when the subject of blues guitar comes into the conversation:
IF YOU SEE ME COMIN’ is from 1938, and shows Teddy Bunn’s talents in three ways — first, as a singer, intense yet understated; second, with some of those same characteristics in his solo (notice how he lets his notes ring, how he doesn’t feel the need to fill up the spaces); third, as a rhythm player. Who’s the pianist? There isn’t any — those harmonies and rhythmic pushes you hear are Teddy’s. The other musicians on this date are the co-leaders Mezz Mezzrow, clarinet; Tommy Ladnier, trumpet; Pops Foster, bass; Manzie Johnson, drums. (The player closest in spirit to Bunn on this record is Ladnier, who has just been chronicled with eloquent thoroughness in Dan Verhettes’ book TRAVELLIN’ BLUES.)
Here’s I GOT RHYTHM, recorded in 1933 by the Spirits of Rhythm, featuring the irreplaceable singer Leo Watson, Douglas and Wilbur Daniels on tipples (which I believe are twelve-string versions of ukuleles), Teddy Bunn — whose solo and trades come after Leo’s vocal episodes — and Virgil Scroggins on “drums,” more likely whiskbrooms on a brown-paper-covered suitcase:
And two reasonably unsatisfying film clips (from the point of view of hearing Teddy Bunn play) although they offer other rare delights. TOM TOM, THE ELEVATOR BOY, comes from the 1941 musical SWEETHEART OF THE CAMPUS, and is out of synch. It is mainly given over to Leo Watson (which is not a problem) but it shows us Teddy Bunn on electric guitar. I’ll even ignore that the clip shows Black musicians as having to be distracted from their onstage crap game to perform their act — on a particularly terrible song:
And a new find — the 1941 equivalent of a Soundie, obviously terribly low-budget, which brings together Jackie Greene, impersonating Eddie Cantor, and the “Five Spirits of Rhythm,” who are here cast as railroad porters in charge of shoe-shines. Here we don’t see Bunn playing but his electric guitar is quite audible on the soundtrack. But it’s a reminder of how badly Black performers were treated in films until years later (even with such luminaries as Sam Coslow and Dudley Murphy supervising). There’s comedy, cheesecake, and a good deal of Greene rolling his eyes. At least the Spirits get to hold out their hands for their tip at the end:
I don’t want to overstate Teddy Bunn’s place in the history of jazz. He did most often find himself playing the blues, or playing thirty-two bar songs with a deep blues flavoring. His solos tended to be variations on simple motifs, and his later playing had lost some of its spark, its inventiveness. When he took up the electric guitar, his identifiable acoustic sound was blurred, and his solos sound rather familiar.
But in his prime he was a remarkable musician, and I look forward to the day when one of my students (or former students) says that hearing Teddy Bunn was a marvelous — even if not life-changing — experience.