Some listeners speak condescendingly of certain jazz performances as “a string of solos.” This dismissal may be understandable if soloists go on and on — one can feel trapped, as one does when facing the conversationalist who shares every in response to, “Nice sneakers! Where did you get them?” After fifteen minutes, the room starts to darken, then spin. But “just solos” can be wonderful.
I know it’s elderly of me to cherish the concision that the ten-inch 78 side demanded, but occasionally it seems just right. Consider this side — famous but little-heard, recorded on January 3, 1940, shortly after Coleman Hawkins came back to New York from his half-decade in Europe. The song originated in 1921, with ties to Valentino and Eddie Cantor, and was often played and recorded by jazz musicians, but (curiously) not that often before 1940. The band is a mix of Hawkins’ colleagues from his Henderson days and a few members of his current orchestra; Polo might have crossed paths with Hawkins in Europe.
In three minutes, they create five choruses of THE SHEIK, and each one is delightfully different: the recording has a built-in structure from the first improvised chorus to the last. (There are nearly a half-dozen transfers of this side on YouTube: I’ve chosen the slightly more honest version here over the very cleaned-up “modern” one others prefer: when surface noise is tidied up and removed, some of the sound goes with it.)
Incidentally, I was recently captivated again by this record (thanks to the silent encouragement of Mister Fat Cat) and by one solo on it — with apologies to Hawk, it’s not his. Care to guess?
I can imagine Hawk briefly issuing directions. “All right, SHEIK. Bright but not too fast. Gene, start us off. Benny, take the lead in the first chorus. I’ll play the melody behind you, and, Danny, you do a little there also. Jack (or “Higgy”) lay out — save it for your chorus. We don’t want to sound too old-fashioned. Danny, take the second. Higgy, take the third. I’ll take the fourth and the first half of the fifth, with maybe a little riff behind me, and then every tub out.”
I think that’s glorious. I doubt there was more than one take. Everybody played their individualistic selves but knew their ensemble role . . . and the record soars.
You’ll notice the label advertises another product. If you’ve ever picked up a well-played 78 at a yard sale, and noticed that the expected black glossy surface is a dull gray, you could say, “Well, that record’s been well-loved,” or you could think about the possible culprit, depicted here.
Mug shots. Front:
I know that the modern stylus is also made of metal, perhaps jewel-tipped (I remember the Columbia Records lp sleeves of my youth, with their taxonomy of Sapphire, Osmium, and Diamond — which now sounds like a singing group) but these Victor needles meant business, and with heavy tone arms, they plowed paths through the grooves. But enough of that. Let us return to Araby, and not the Joyce story.
May your happiness increase!