The subject today is The Illusion of Musical Purity in Jazz.
I think it began in the Twenties, when jazzmen themselves made divisions between “commercial” and “hot” music. The former was what you were paid to play — often trivial, unswinging, unimaginative — reading stock arrangements while someone in a tuxedo waved a baton. The latter — the ideal — was what you played at 4 AM with enough gin or muggles or spaghetti (or all three) to make sure that everyone was mellow. Later on, when the fans started to anatomize the music in ways the musicians had never cared to, the fans and journalists built walls stronger than the Berlin version. “Commercial” music was “Swing,” where good guys played insipid pop tunes and took eight-bar solos once a night; “the real thing” was an ideal, rarely achieved.
Think of the posthumous scorn heaped on Paul Whiteman because his Orchestra wasn’t Bix and his Gang; think of those serious jazz fans who traced The Decline of Louis Armstrong to I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE taking the place of MAHOGANY HALL STOMP.
But the musicians themselves — while preferring looseness, open-mindedness, swing, and an escape from the paper — never much cared what songs they were playing. Was PISTOL PACKIN’ MAMA unworthy of Bunk Johnson? He didn’t think so. Did John Coltrane disdain MY FAVORITE THINGS, or Charlie Parker A SLOW BOAT TO CHINA?
I have remembered, more than once, Wild Bill Davison’s comment to an interviewer that he never learned or knew THAT’S A PLENTY until he came to New York: in Chicago, he and his friends played swinging improvisations on current and classic pop tunes. As did Eddie Condon, Ellington, Teddy Wilson, Mildred Bailey.
These thoughts were especially prominent in my mind when I found the latest videos from the estimable First Thursday Band — led by pianist Ray Skjelbred — at the New Orleans Creole Restaurant in Seattle, Washington . . . on September 6, 2012. The other members of the FTB are drummer Mike Daughterty, skilled at roll play; bassist Dave Brown, whose beat can’t be beat; multi-instrumentalist Steve Wright. Some of the tunes you will see and hear below — by virtue of jazz instrumentalists playing them memorably — have become “jazz classics.” But they were all popular tunes, premiered in vaudeville, Broadway musicals, the movies, around the parlor piano.
The ambiance here is so reminiscent of an otherwise unknown Chicago club, circa 1934, with the good guys having the time of their life playing requests and songs they like. Close your eyes and you’ll hear not only Wright, Brown, Daugherty, and Skjelbred, but Frank Melrose, Earl Hines, Alex Hill, Zinky Cohn; Guy Kelly, Jimmie Noone, Frank Teschmacher, Wellman Braud, Milt Hinton, Zutty Singleton, Sidney Catlett — the list of happily approving ghosts is very long.
I begin this history / music theory lesson with Wayne King’s theme song — in the wrong hands, as soggy as uncooked French toast, but here snappy and sweet:
THE WALTZ YOU SAVED FOR ME :
Richard Whiting’s SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY, which had a life long before John Hammond handed it to Billie Holiday:
A zippy Harry Barris song from the film extravaganza THE KING OF JAZZ — in our century, adopted as music for penguins — HAPPY FEET (with the verse — and then Skjelbred leaps in like a man possessed):
Isham Jones’ pretty, mournful WHAT’S THE USE? (with a rhythm section that won’t quit):
And from 1919, one of those songs suggesting that happiness could be conveyed by facial expressions, in fact, by loving SMILES:
Purists, begone! Visit here to see more.
May your happiness increase.