Daily Archives: May 21, 2014

LARGER THAN ANY TEXTBOOK

I opened a jazz-history textbook the other day, and was struck once again by the packaging of the music as a chronologically-unfolding procession. Each “style” is afforded a chapter. World musics lead to ragtime, to Bolden, to Louis, Henderson, Ellington, Lester, Bird, Miles, Coltrane, Ornette, and “the future of jazz.”

Implicit in this survey, since “progress is our most important product” in this contemporary landscape, is the idea that the music began in simplicity (acceptable because they didn’t know any better) and added on new densities of harmony, rhythm (all to be applauded).

I find the idea that New is an improvement on Old distasteful, but I will leave that for now.  (By the same token, I do not automatically think Old = True, and New = Corrupt.)

What fascinated me so much in this textbook was the presentation of The Great Innovators.  The “Stars,” if you will. I am proud of what others might call unrestrained admiration for Louis Armstrong — a love perhaps bordering on idolatry. I feel the same way about Jack Teagarden, Lester Young, Billie Holiday and a hundred others. But this book made clear that when the New Innovator came to town, everyone tried to play or sing like him / her, so immense was their powerful artistic identity.

The Innovators, to be sure, affected musicians with seismic force. Rex Stewart wrote of hearing Louis with Henderson that he, Rex, tried to not only play like Louis but affect all things Louis-like.

But we see in Rex’s case, that imitation very quickly becomes a subtler thing, and that Rex absorbed from Louis certain shadings and approaches that fit into his own conception of what he was meant to do and be.

There is, of course, the other example: the Innovator comes to town, the critics go wild, the fans bow down — but some musicians say, “That is not for me at all,” and keep developing their own sounds in a sweetly defiant individuality. Pee Wee Russell is very much aware of Benny Goodman; Miff Mole knows about Jack Teagarden; Pete Brown lives in the same city as Charlie Parker . . . but Russell, Mole, and Brown go their own ways.

All this is meant only to suggest that the creative improvised music we love is too large, too organic, too fluid to be compressed into a forward-moving history textbook.

May your happiness increase!

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MUSIC FOR STRING ENSEMBLE, 1938

Bobby Sherwood (1914-81) isn’t well-known as a jazz guitarist today, but in the early Thirties he was so deeply respected that he was Bing Crosby’s accompanist on 1934 recordings (MOONBURN and SOMEDAY SWEETHEART); he recorded with the Boswell Sisters, Cleo Brown, and Joe Venuti.  (In 1940 he was guitarist and one of the arrangers for Artie Shaw.)

To me, this means he was viewed as a player equal to the late Eddie Lang, and his beautiful sonority and chordal subtleties — and swing — don’t disappoint.

A few years earlier, violinist Harry Bluestone (1907-92) was recording with hot dance studio bands, Connee Boswell, the Boswell Sisters, Lee Wiley, the Dorsey Brothers, Glenn Miller, Bill Challis, Casper Reardon, and again Artie Shaw . . . .

While Sherwood eventually led his own band (playing a variety of instruments, composing, and singing), Bluestone became the first-chair violinist and concertmaster for many many recordings with everyone from Peggy Lee to Quincy Jones.

But this Decca 78, recorded in November 1938, shows them quietly and wittily evoking Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti — to great effect — while sounding like themselves.

First, the punning KIDDIN’ ON THE STRINGS:

Then, a sweet AM I BLUE?:

The moral?  Great music is made by people you might not have heard of except as side-people on more famous people’s record date.

May your happiness increase!