Musician, composer, and scholar Allen Lowe doesn’t hold back — either in generosity, scope, or opinions. And he has perhaps the widest range of any musician I know: from Louis, Eubie, and Doc Cheatham (as well as the shade of Jack Purvis) reaching forward to Julius Hemphill, Matthew Shipp, and Marc Ribot.
His book and CD set, THAT DEVILIN’ TUNE, was a re-presentation of the history of recorded jazz, and it did so with audacious delight across thirty-six discs, from the eighteen-nineties to the nineteen-fifties. Lowe’s criteria for inclusion (and exclusion) excited some listeners and irritated others, but no one could ignore the heroic sweep of music presented in those four neat boxes.
Some music scholars operate by exclusion and create their own criteria for artistic purity: if a performance doesn’t fit in the box they’ve made, it can’t be considered valid. (Think of the airlines’ measurements for carry-on luggage and you get the idea.) Like Whitman, Lowe is fascinated by elasticities, by stretching rather than closing-off.
Lowe wants us to hear as if for the first time — in much the same way that Conrad said the novelist wanted to make us see. He arranges his music, delighting in pushing aside the limiting constructs of race, gender, or “genre.” So the expected nestles in beside the surprising, and this collage-approach encourages or forces the listener to hear just how explosive a Bert Williams, a Jelly Roll Morton, a Ma Rainey, was — as well as the artists we’ve not yet heard.
The other parallel motion of a Lowe set is to say to us, “Listen to this! You have large music collections, but I’ll bet you haven’t heard this.” And few of us will be able to say, “I know all of the music presented here.”
The question mark says a good deal about Lowe’s inquiring approach to this or any other musical subject.
When I initially heard that he had completed one of his astonishing cornucopias on the loosely-defined subject of the blues, I was fascinated and more that a bit worried. How would anyone endure thirty-six compact discs (nearly a thousand tracks) trapped within the twelve-bar blues form, with the occasional detour for the eight-bar and sixteen-bar varieties. “My man’s gone,” “My woman’s gone,” “My old daddy’s got a brand new way to love,” “It hurts so good,” “Money all gone,” “Flood washed my house away,” “Why am I poor?” and variations on those tropes . . .
I needn’t have worried. Always relying on his own imoulses, Lowe trusts himself, so his collection isn’t restricted to “official” blues performances using three chords only. And the juxtapositions are thrilling — consider this sequence of four recordings from 1922 and 1923: Society Blues (Kid Ory and Mutt Carey); Teasin’ the Frets (Nick Lucas); I Ain’t Got Nobody (Marion Harris); Midnight Blues (Ethel Waters). Although perhaps it is not something most jazz / blues listeners would like to admit, they would privilege some names above others as “authentic” (Ory and Waters) and others as “popular,” “derivative,” “vaudevillian.” For many listeners, race would enter into their assessment. There’s no question that Waters bursts upon the ear with a great soulful immediacy, but then again so does Harris. And Nick Lucas has just as much fervor as Ory’s Sunshne Orchestra. The surprises come thick and fast: I saw Sophie Tucker as a huge elderly Hot Mama on television some forty-five years ago: her 1922 AGGRAVATIN’ PAPA is fresh and lively, belying its age, her race, and the musical associations Ms. Tucker is saddled with. So does Eddie Cantor in 1924.
And since many listeners tend to burrow deeply but narrowly into their chosen loves, I wonder how many jazz / blues fanciers will know the music of The Pebbles, The Two of Spades, the Old Pal Smoke Shop Four, and others (I am leaving aside the early gospel recordings as an area many have never ventured into.)
The juxtapositions — both theoretical and actual — are vivid and fascinating. Consider this list of thirteen recordings — all except one from the second half of 1927: PENN BEACH BLUES (Venuti – Lang ) / BLACK HEARSE BLUES (Sarah Martin – Sylvester Weaver) / COLD PENITENTIARY BLUES (E.F. Shelton) / SHAKIN’ THE BLUES AWAY (Ruth Etting) / THE CROWING ROOSTER (Walter Rhodes) / CREOLE LOVE CALL (Ellington) / GOD’S GOING TO SEPARATE THE WHEAT FROM THE TARES (Blind Joe Taggart) / JAZZ ME BLUES / ROYAL GARDEN BLUES (Bix and his Gang) / CHATTANOOGA BLUES (Allen Bros.) / NEW ORLEANS LOWDOWN (Ellington) / BARRELHOUSE MAN (Will Ezell) / I AM BORN TO PREACH THE GOSPEL (Washington Phillips).
It is rather like coming to stay with the world’s most avid and generous collector of music who throws his or her shelves open to the listener, offering treasures, “common” recordings, and rarities, without a pre-set ideology or value system. Lowe doesn’t say that everything is equal or important, but that it all means something in the larger picture of a culture, of shifting musical landscapes. This is the first leg of a thrilling journey, and (to carry the metaphor to its logical conclusion) we couldn’t have a better guide.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of deep listening and reconsidering to do! (So do you, if I may be so bold.)
You can order the first volume of four at http://www.allenlowe.com.
Here’s the link to the complete track list for the entire 36-CD set (in four volumes):
WHILE YOU’RE UP, CLICK HERE: ALL MONEY GOES TO THE MUSICIANS!