JACK KAPP INSISTS

Two stories from the past.

One comes from someone’s reminiscence of being on the bus with the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe — this could have been in 1957 — where Sonny Stitt, a brilliantly virtuosic player, was walking up and down the aisle of the bus, horn in full flight, playing everything he knew, pulling out every impressive piece of acrobatic improvising to wow his august audience.  Lester Young, probably seated in the back of the bus, is supposed to have said, “That’s very nice, Lady Stitt.  But can you sing me a song?”

Bing Crosby and Jack Kapp (1901-1949) in the studio

Bing Crosby and Jack Kapp (1901-1949) in the studio

Jack Kapp, the head of Decca Records, was famous for wanting his artists — Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Louis Armstrong, the Andrews Sisters — to play and sing the melody so that the ordinary listener knew it was there.  Some sources say there was a wooden Indian at one end of the studio with a sign around its neck, WHERE’S THE MELODY? — others remember it as a picture of a Native American maiden with a cartoon balloon in which the same question was written in bold letters.

Famously, Kapp has been depicted in recent years as a fierce oppressor, someone who chained his free-spirited artists to the black dots on the manuscript paper.  It was all about the money, scholars propose, aiming music at the lowest common denominator who couldn’t understand anything they couldn’t hum along to.

Jazz writers like to imagine “what would have happened if (fill in hero / heroine’s name) had been able to record for a more hip company.  What magical music would we have now?”  They shed tears for Louis Armstrong, “forced” to record Hawaiian songs with Andy Iona.

Third story.  Time: 2014.

I received a CD not long ago by a jazz group I hadn’t heard of, although their credentials and associations were impressive.  And the CD had many beautiful songs on it — lovely melodies that I looked forward to hearing.  When I put the CD on, I was immediately taken with the beautiful recorded sound, the expansive improvisations, the sophisticated technique of the players — no one seemed to take a breath; no one faltered; the improvisations — at the highest level — went on without a letup. But in each case, the improvisations were so technically dazzling, so dense with musical information that the song, hinted at in the first chorus, sank deeper and deeper under the water.  Intricate rhythmic patterns, hammered out unceasingly; layers of substitute harmonies; unusual tempos (ballads taken at triple speed) dominated every performance.

The disc lasted about an hour.  It was brilliant and awe-inspiring but I found it truly exhausting and, to me, antithetical to the spirit of the original songs.  I know, I know.  Jazz is “about” improvisation, right? Only dullards play exactly what’s on the page, correct?

I listened to the whole CD, and as much as I marveled at the technique, the assurance, the bold dash of the whole thing, all I wanted to do was to hear something beautiful, something songful and soulful.  Ben Webster playing HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON?  Louis playing and singing WHEN YOU’RE SMILING. Bird with Strings.  A Johnny Hodges slow blues.  Benny Goodman playing LADY BE GOOD.  Miles Davis exploring the PORGY AND BESS score.

I always agreed with the commonly held notion of Jack Kapp as a materialistic soul-destroying enemy of creativity.

Now I might rethink my position, because beautifully playing the melody seems like balm to my ears.

And I think that many musicians would say it is much more difficult to play that ballad “straight” and convey the song’s emotions than to leave the original behind in thirty-two bars in the name of improvisation.

I hope you find beautiful melodies wherever you go.  They are all around us.

May your happiness increase! 

2 responses to “JACK KAPP INSISTS

  1. A number of years ago, as a trumpet player learning about trad and all these wonderful songs, I decided to spend a week at one of Jamey Aebersold’s jazz camps. Aspiring amateur and jazz players for years have started with Aebersold’s “Anyone can Improvise” books, I was no different.

    While it was an enjoyable week, and I had more chord theory pounded into my head than had penetrated for a while, the daily showcase concerts by the instructors…. left me cold. They were almost all bebop and post-bebop guys.Hour after hour of scales expertly threaded through complex chord progressions, but not much in the way of anything hummable. Finally toward the end of the week one group performed “Lover Man”, and the way the soloist followed the melody was a relief to my soul.

    (At this camp I also came to realize that if the gold standard albums of the hip jazz dudes are around 50 years old, maybe I don’t have to feel too moldy if mine are 60-70…..)

  2. Dear Michael,

    I can’t figure out how you find the time to do everything that you do…& then write so effectively about the concerts, festivals, club performances, jam sessions & records you receive! Your enjoyment & understanding of the music that was recorded before you were born & of the new wave of fine young players who keep it alive today is really appreciated by those of us who were lucky enough to discover this music back in the 40’s when most of those who invented & refined the foundations of jazz as we knew it back then were still active…at the peak of their skills if not their popularity..

    I was lucky enough to see & hear Louis, Bechet, Hackett, Teagarden, Pee Wee, Red Allen, Rex, Buck, Big Sid, Tatum, Miff Mole, Wettling, Krupa, Benny, Billie, Ella, Wild Bill, Roy & Bean, Lester, Ben, Willie The Lion, Vic & so many more who set the bar at heights that have seldom been surpassed, & in later years I was able to meet, photograph & interview some of these giants & their peers.

    Your commentary about the cerebral & mechanical explorations of each chord change & it’s extensions, often played at double or triple time, went right to the heart (or lack of it) that is so typical of today’s erroneous concept of what jazz is understood to be today.

    As a guitar player, Bobby Hackett certainly knew his chord changes, but choosing which notes to sound & where to leave the best spaces was what made is solos timeless & unforgettable. His best-known solo as far as the public is concerned is undoubtedly on Jerry Gray’s “String Of Pearls”. Of course they don’t know who is playing it, but it so catches the listener’s ear that it has been transcribed into the stock so that they will recognize it again as an integral part of the chart itself. In 50+ years of playing the Miller stock I’ve never heard anyone play a better improvisation on those changes!

    You probably didn’t have room to include Ben Webster’s classic response to why, during the recording of a lovely ballad, he suddenly stopped in the middle of his solo. “I forgot the words” was his reply. That’s a really great lesson in how to play real jazz!

    Keep up your wonderful work!

    ( :-}D )

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