Sterling Brown: "Stray Notes on Jazz"
IN 1916 the Victor Company offered a recording contract to the Original Creole Band, a group of New Orleans Negroes which for five years had been touring the country, playing the new "jazz" from Los Angeles to Coney Island. The leader, Freddie Keppard, rejected the offer: "We won't put our stuff on records for everybody to steal." His suspicion was costly. A white band from New Orleans, the Original Dixieland Jass [sic] Band, had just come to New York and was dazzling crowds at Reisenweber’s Cafe. They jumped at the chance to record, and their records sold by the millions. The momentum of success carried them to England. Their early playings therefore can be heard today, while the punching trumpet of the more original Keppard is to be heard on only a few collectors' items, cut in Keppard's declining years. Contrary to accepted opinion, the Original Dixielanders were not the first white band to play jazz in New York, as they had been preceded by the Louisiana Five. But they were the first to record and to be well advertised, and they have given a name to a school of jazz. Their influence was strong: La Rocca on cornet inspired Bix Beiderbecke; Eddie Edwards on trombone inspired Georg Brunies; and Larry Shields showed the capacities of the jazz clarinet. Most important, however, was their balanced contrapunctal ensemble.
In Chicago another white band, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, rivalled them in performance and fame. Two youngsters, Leon Rappolo on clarinet and Georg Brunies on trombone, were driving forces in this band. Rappolo died early, victim of drugs and hectic living; Brunies is still a favorite in the recording studios. Brunies has said that the best tunes for the early jazz were originated by New Orleans Negroes, and in many other respects these bands are indebted to Negro pioneers. But the music so derived became distinctive. "Dixieland moves, not like Negro jazz, smoothly, unpredictably, and with vast momentum, but jumpily like white ragtime playing. Nevertheless it moves and at its best can be a very exciting music. It never quite achieves the free, relaxed counterpoint of black music; it relies more on the solo; it has more harmony and less dissonance. Nor will the blues be found in it. . . ."
Even if Keppard had recorded for Victor, it is unlikely that his Negro band could have garnered the fame and money that the Dixielanders did; the band would hardly have been engaged in the spots that assured popularity. Audiences at first did not know how to take the infectious rhythms and improvisation. It was looked on as a barnyard music, a misgiving reenforced by the Dixielanders' gay spoofing of "Livery Stable Blues" (no blues, of course, but the seed-corn from which Spike Jones has sprouted). Despite the sensation of the Original Dixielanders and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, jazz was still too rough musically and too tough socially for people brought up on Sousa and Victor Herbert. There had to be compromise. So what has been aptly called the Whiteman era in jazz was ushered in with pomp and circumstance. Violins and saxophones sweetened and sentimentalized what seemed coarse and raucous. A solidly rocking rhythm was exchanged for a rapping tattoo; the beating of a tom-tom subsided to the rustling of a whisk broom over sand paper, semi-symphonic arrangements were attempted (and this line has led to Fred Waring and Lombardo). Tricky and arch, these arrangements were as far from symphonies as from jazz, but their rehearsed precision got them where New Orleans jamming might have pushed out the walls or summoned the police. Paul Whiteman laid down his fiddle for a baton and was crowned "king of jazz." Managers, worshipping mere "bigness," following Barnum's "A hundred— count 'em!" technique for packing them in, multiplied performers to multiply box-office receipts. A brass section of four trumpets and three trombones, drilled to rise and blast automatically, was thought to be three- and-a-half times as good as one trumpet-trombone team, seated around a piano feeling a song and trying their best to blow that feeling out truthfully, the way it was.
Otis Ferguson tells in Jazzmen how Bix Beiderbecke, the young man with the golden horn, wandered in amid the acre of brass in Whiteman's band, was called on for a startling solo, and then subsided forlornly, his good deed done. He was no more lost, however, than the true Negro idiom was. By popular logic what was Negro was conceived to be funny—Bessie Smith, the great blues singer, was first labelled as a "comedienne," for instance—and music in the Negro idiom was tricked out to stir laughter. Comic devices were urged by the entrepreneurs; cornets and trombones ejaculated laughter, and one clarinetist blew on three clarinets at one time. Master of the clowning of jazz, the "hokum," was Ted Lewis. He set a tophat on his head, blew bad clarinet, strutted about and beamed "Is everybody happy?" thereby contributing to an unhappy state of affairs. Lewis did hire good musicians like Muggsy Spanier, Fats Waller and Benny Goodman, and he imitated the Negro idiom as well as he knew how, but most of the playing in the Negro style was not an imitation but a caricature, as phoney as a vaudevillian's impersonation of a Negro.
The real jazz went underground, almost literally. But it throve. It was still sustained by a folk-life, unorganized now, but teeming with music. In Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and Kansas City , the Negro migrants still had their stomps and blues and rocking spirituals. In Chicago King Oliver had one of the best small combinations with Crown Prince Louis Armstrong and Johnny Dodds counterpointing his driving cornet. Jimmy Noone, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, and Kid Ory were others who had spent lehrjahre in New Orleans, and were in Chicago on their wanderjahre. Free and open, Chicago was a good city for the exciting music to flourish in. Young white men (some still in Austin High School) hung around Negro dance-halls like the Dreamland and the Royal Gardens to learn the new musical language, the unorthodox but inventive techniques, and to assimilate the spirit of the playing. Benny Goodman, Muggsy Spanier, Jess Stacy, Joe Sullivan, Gene Krupa, Bud Freeman, Joe Marsala, and Frank Teschmaker were some who went to school to Negro jazzmen. One of the legends about Bix is that for for hours on end he would listen to Bessie Smith's intoning of the blues. She was no comedienne to him.
Because Bessie Smith's music was the deeply felt music of the blues. Around themes of hard-luck, desperation, ironic contrasts between the hope and the actuality—"the blues ain't nothing but the poor man's heart disease"—grew up the Negro’s secular songs of sorrow. Musically the blues were suited to carry the burden of grief. Comprising twelve or occasionally sixteen bars, involving certain simple harmonic changes, stressing the "blue note" in which the third and seventh are not pitched steadily but waver between flat and natural, they brought a poignance to American music. They lend themselves to improvisation and are basic to much hot jazz. W. C. Handy's best selling blues of Memphis and St. Louis introduced the blues to another America than their native haunts in turpentine camps and on the levees. Women of expressive voices as impelling as cornets, as subtle as clarinets, sang in the small Negro theatres and honky-tonks. Among the best were Ma Rainey, Bessie and Clara Smith, and Ida Cox. In small towns people waited religiously for the latest blues records which sold like the hot platters they were. Louis Armstrong, Tommy Ladnier, Joe Smith, one of the most creative cornetists, Buster Bailey and Coleman Hawkins (who play so differently now) and James P. Johnson and Fletcher Henderson, great influences today, learned jazz from the roots by accompanying these singers. Men singers of the blues were Lonnie Johnson, Jim Jackson, Tampa Red, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, who was led about by a small boy named Josh White. Joe Turner was a wee baby then.
Boogie-woogie piano playing, another form close to the folk, also entered jazz history in the twenties. Starting from Southern origins as dim as those of the blues, boogie-woogie is another jazz invention created to fill a need. For the house parties of Chicago's Negro ghetto a piano player was hired to serve as a one-piece band all by himself. This made for musical discoveries, pursued with technical passion. Careless listening results in charging boogie-woogie with monotony. But one enthusiast writes: "Look, look, the artist seems to say. Look at all the things you can do with piano blues. You can make 'em ring out like chimes: you can make 'em cascade like falling icicles; you can make 'em sound like a train going over a bridge; you can make 'em whimper like a lost dog; you can make 'em stomp and holler and shout. . . . Look what you can do by fluttering this chord while the left hand maintains its beat!"
Blesch characterizes boogie-woogie as "a primitive style of piano playing employing the twelve-bar blues form . . .almost percussive in effect, with the right hand chording very rhythmically over a basso ostinato of rising and descending chromatic chords or a similarly rising and descending 'walking bass' consisting of spread octaves." "Pine-top" Smith, who popularized the name, and Jimmy Yancey, who inspired Meade Lux Lewis to compose a jazz classic, "The Yancey Special," were masters of the style in the twenties. Lewis and Al Ammons from Chicago, and Pete Johnson from Kansas City brought boogie-woogie to New York under the sponsorship of John Hammond, starting a lasting praise. Big bands such as Will Bradley, Tommy Dorsey and Lionel Hampton now have orchestrated boogie-woogie; Larry Adler blows it on his harmonica, and even Iturbi essays to play it, but the purest exponents of this style are the midwesterners mentioned, together with Cripple Clarence Lofton, Cow Cow Davenport and Honey Hill of Chicago, Mary Lou Williams of Kansas City and Sammy Price of Texas. In jazz history then, as the center for hot jazz in the twenties and early thirties, Chicago is second in importance only to New Orleans. Small bands were chiefly responsible for this. After making historic records with King Oliver, Louis Armstrong organized his Hot Five and Hot Seven with such stars as Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, and Lil Hardin, his second wife, and Earl Hines on piano. Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers were cutting some of the hottest and least dated records of the era which make Morton's scoff at the various styles—"Man, they are all Jelly Roll's style"—seem less like egomania. Earl Rines, father of the trumpet-style piano, later recorded with Jimmy Noone, from whose expressive clarinet both Goodman and Artie Shaw have learned. Tops among white musicians before his early death was Bix Beiderbecke, a cornetist of fluent melodic ideas and brilliant jetting notes—"they were hit, like a mallet hits a chime," says his friend Hoagy Carmichael. But Bix did not have stellar musicians in his Wolverine Band as Louis Armstrong had, and the records of the Wolverines, for all of their historic importance, lack the prophetic quality of those made by Armstrong and Hines—"The West End Blues," for instance.
Bix and Louis, King Oliver, Earl Rines, Johnny Dodds, and Jimmie Noone stirred enthusiastic imitation. Soon Chicago's second line: Frank Teschmaker, Jimmy McParland, Goodman, Spanier, Stacy, Bud Freeman, Mezz Mezzrow and Art Hodes were contributing to Chicago Jazz—which if not a clearly defined style—is at least a period in jazz history. Most of the bands were pick-up bands for recording; the best-paying showplaces still kept up with the Isham Joneses. When Wingy Mannone, New Orleans trumpeter proud to be of Satchmo's School, fronted a big band with a baton (hoping to cash in on some of the ready dough) he was hooted by the lovers of the hot style: "Wingy, where did you learn to lead a band?" and he went back to playing the way he knew how. Perhaps the greatest unifying thread among the Chicagoans was a determination to play what they wanted, the way they wanted to play it. And that was generally in a style that fused the New Orleans jazz of Oliver and Armstrong with Dixieland. In spite of the Negro talent in the town, the term Chicago Jazz applies to white Chicagoan musicians, and not to all of them. Goodman, though a native of the city, is not a Chicago clarinetist, but Pee Wee Russell from Missouri is. Chicago style has no standardized meaning. To the New Orleans instrumentation, a saxophone (or two) was added (disturbing the New Orleans balance), and solos were favored over ensemble improvisation. Charles Smith holds that "the Chicagoans brought orchestral dynamics to the back room, welding them to stop-and-go tactics that had been features of white jazz since the Dixieland days. There was an all-out ensemble climax, straight from New Orleans, a sort of "get-the-hell-off-of-my-note" ride-out; Eddie Condon's jam sessions and the Nicksielanders are the current development of the style. They are praised for "the warm, spontaneous, sometimes almost undisciplined ardor . . . with terrific tension generated by each man blowing off steam in his own way."
Miff Mole, one of the standbys of the Nicksielanders, illustrates what New York brought to jazz history in the twenties, namely a high degree of musicianship. Skillful in the playing of a legato instead of a staccato trombone, he teamed up with Red Nichols to produce countless records in which technique and quiet assurance were the values instead of the fervor of the Hot Five and the out-of-this-world trance of the Chicagoans. With Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and the precocious Benny Goodman, Nichols and Mole (sometimes Nichols and Teagarden, who had mastered blues and hot trombone deep in the heart of Texas) steadily enlarged the popularity of the new art. The records they made were more apt to be of the "Tea for Two" and " Avalon" type, rather than "Gin Mill Blues," and "Basin Street Blues," and "King Porter Stomp," but they generated enough heat to thaw out the young who huddled over phonographs and missed the ball-room palaces where bands performed in swallow-tails. Meanwhile in Harlem there were first-rate performers, like Johnny Dunn and Bubber Miley on trumpet, Tricky Sam and Jimmy Harrison on trombone, Bennie Carter and Coleman Hawkins on saxophone, studying nuances of expressiveness. And there was a good living playing at parlor socials for such pianists as Willie the Lion Smith, Lucky Roberts, James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, who in contrast to the self-taught boogie-woogie pianists in Chicago, were well-trained. Most important in New York jazz, however, were the bands of Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. With a roster of some of the best musicians, Fletcher Henderson was leading the way in fusing jazz band arrangements with improvised hot solos. Louis Armstrong came over to join him. And at the Cotton Club, Duke Ellington, just arrived from Washington with the nucleus of the most famous jazz orchestra of all, was already introducing the distinctive ensemble pattern, arrived at by innumerable shadings of tone and subtleties of rhythm."
Whiteman's popularity had declined; Ted Lewis was old hat. But the big band was here to stay. Even in Chicago of the twenties there were big bands that struggled to play "hot" in the large dance halls—Erskine Tate's and Doc Cook's for instance. "The development of hot music from the New Orleans small group to the five brass, four reeds and four rhythms which Goodman used was a gradual evolutionary process rather than an abrupt revolutionary one." White bands that illustrate the steps from both New Orleans-Chicago collective improvisation and semi-symphonic jazz, are the Ben Pollack band in which Goodman started, Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Band, and the Dorsey Brothers. When these brothers split up, Tommy the trombonist and Jimmy the saxophonist headed individual bands, each of which hit the jackpot. Other leaders helping in the triumph of swing were Artie Shaw, Charley Barnett who frankly imitates Ellington and Basie, Glenn Miller, Bob Crosby, the brother of Bing, but dedicated to Dixieland, and Woody Herman who metamorphosed Isham Jones's relicts into a blues-playing and today frenzied swing band. But Goodman "opened the door for the modern era of big bands with virtuoso leadership." Negro bands, other than Henderson's and Ellington's that helped establish swing were led by Chick Webb at Harlem's Savoy, Cab Calloway, the hi-de-ho man, Lus Russell with whom Louis Armstrong played, Count Basie, and Andy Kirk.
To the question: "What is Swing?" Fats Waller once answered, "If you have to ask, you ain't got it." The critic Robert Goffin states that the word was "created to designate this artificial dynamism which replaced ensemble improvisation . . . a successful formula for commercial hot music." Paul Eduard Miller believes that swing contains all the elements of jazz, and though he prefers the small sized groups he refuses to argue that "jazz written for large orchestras cannot also be great." To Rudi Blesch, big hands, "an inevitable development in Jazz . . . spell the virtually complete dropping of the basic idea of collective improvisation." Gaining fullness and richness of tone and accuracy, big bands lose suppleness and rhythmic complexity. "No one has been able as yet to write the sort of free counterpoint which small bands improvise, nor arrange for even the most gifted sections to play it." Blesch finds swing bands relying more and more on powerful beats and repeated riffs (rhythmic phrases) that take the place of melodic developments. Often impressive, this can become "deadly monotonous." One defender of swing, even while praising the exciting musicianship of the new bands led by Woody Herman and Lionel Hampton, fears that swing may become static and exchange "the jazz birth-right . . . for a mess of box-office receipts." In spite of the contemporary need that he believes is filled by swing, it is still at the mercy of commercialism.
Where the seven-brass, five reeds, and four rhythm band has perforce had to create a new tradition, small bands play closer to the parent style. In recommending certain jazz records B. H. Haggin writes: "What I am concerned with is the freely improvisatory 'hot' performances—which are what jazz is—that some of the players in one of these bands may indulge in when their night's work is over, either in private for their own pleasure or in the recording-studio for pleasure and the union-rate . . . under the conditions of relaxed freedom and intimacy which this improvisatory performance requires." Benny Goodman's trios, quartette, and sextet, were distinctive alike for the chamber-music jazz they produced and for their interracial make-up. Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Charles Christian, Fletcher Henderson, and Cootie Williams are Negroes who have supported Goodman on jazz classics. Crosby's Bobcats, Dorsey's Clambake Seven, and Shaw's Gramercy Five are small recording outfits from large swing bands. Ellington's smaller units led by Johnny Nodges, alto saxophonist; Barney Bigard, clarinetist, Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams, trumpeters, are noted. From Basie's band, the Kansas City Six and Seven play an easier riding jazz than Basie's powerhouse riffing. Small Dixieland or Nicksieland groups make use of such men as Spanier, Teagarden, Bud Freeman, Max Kaminsky, Wild Bill Davison, Pee Wee Russell and Eddie Condon. Earlier, Fats Waller had an underestimated small combination; the rollicking buffoonery of the old master too often diverted attention from the fine musical backing. The recording groups of Red Norvo supporting Mildred Bailey and of Teddy Wilson supporting Billie Holiday created relaxed, skillful, and emotionally persuasive music. Bunny Berigan and Gene Krupa recorded jazz classics with bands composed of Negro and white stars. A distinctively fluent small group was John Kirby's. Art Hodes, Red Allen, Edmond Hall and Benny Morton have for a long time led outstanding small bands; Joe Sullivan and Jack Teagarden have made fine records with small outfits. The small band tradition of the Hot Five and the Red Hot Peppers has never been lost, certainly not in the recording studios.
And yet for a long time small bands "made musical history and laid a large financial egg," in the words of one historian. Small bands today, however, are laying golden eggs, especially on New York's Fifty-Second Street. During the war, nightspots sprang up like mushrooms in places so small that trios (especially piano, guitar, and bass) became standard. The King Cole Trio led in popularity, but soon trios starred men like Art Tatum, Eddie Heywood, Johnny Guarnieri, Herman Chittison on piano, Stuff Smith and Slam Stewart on strings, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Don Buas and Charlie Parker on saxophone and Dizzy Gillespie—especially Dizzy—on trumpet. The rationing of shellac and the Petrillo AFL ban on the recording by the major companies caused a sudden flurry of new recording firms which are concentrating on small all-star bands.
Does this mean that jazz has returned to the collective improvisation of New Orleans? It does not. The dominant aim on Fifty-Second Street seems to be exhibition of virtuosity, rather than ensemble improvising. Bunk Johnson likens the conventional tenor saxophone solo to a man "running up and down stairs with no place to go." Dizzy Gillespie has become one of those single man influences on jazz, like Louis Armstrong and Father Hines in the twenties. Noted for brilliant facility (the leading swing bands of Woody Herman and Lionel Hampton are said to be on a "Dizzy kick"), Gillespie has been called "the most-discussed, most idolized and most imitated musician of the year." The type of music played by Gillespie goes by the name of "be-bop" (not to be confused with the juke-box jingle—"Hey-ba-ba-re-bop"); it is marked by rapid-fire changes. One critic caustically wonders what might happen if a sudden veering of fashion left the band "stuck at 9:01 p.m. with an anachronistic 9:00 p.m. riff." Instead of playing fast as fury to keep abreast of the latest development, "be-bop" performers are urged to return to "playing a tune, just any old thing with a reasonable chord progression and everyone somewhere near it, in something resembling dance tempo, in a way that sounds pleasant, and without piercing an ear drum at twenty paces."
Leonard Feather, who favors progressive jazz of the "be-bop" school applies the term "moldy figs" to all adherents of the New Orleans style. Nevertheless such jazz is being played and recorded increasingly. In these first years of Bunk Johnson's renascence, he and his band have been recorded by five different companies; King Jazz, Inc., is recording the veterans Sidney Bechet and Mezz Mezzrow; Commodore, Blue Note and Disc Companies, while eclectically sponsoring jazz of all types, stress improvised jazz; out in California the Jazz Man Company is issuing the Dixieland of Lu Walters and the Crescent Company brings back Kid Ory to the turn tables. Numerous recently formed companies record small combinations, generally drawn from Fifty-Second Street. Interest in extending the boundaries of jazz goes on apace. The New Jazz Foundation in New York aims at ambitious concert jazz. Famous soloists have been giving jam sessions at San Francisco's Philharmonic; and Duke Ellington has presented his Black, Brown, and Beige Tone Parallel at Carnegie Hall. James P. Johnson, dean of jazz pianists, has been presented in frequent concerts, pleasing both long-hair critics and the jazz aficionados. Serious books and articles are now being written on jazz; magazines from the most popular to the most highbrow have articles on jazz and record reviews. One no longer has to read European aesthetes for interpretation of an American popular art.
Record collecting is now a fascinating and remunerative American hobby. A thriving magazine, The Record Changer, is dedicated to the collecting fraternity allover the world. Prices in the Record Changer sometimes run amazingly high. According to Gordon Gullickson, its editor, "Almost any King Oliver or Gennett or Okeh will, if in good condition, bring between $150 and $200." Joe Oliver, called the king of jazz by those who knew, though the early books on jazz do not mention him, died penniless in Savannah at the time of the triumph of swing. His sister had to use her rent money to get his body to New York. She wanted to buy a headstone for his grave, but her money ran out and the grave still lacks a stone. If she only had one of her brother's early records she might buy a fine marker for his resting place.
From Vassar Brew (1946). NOTE: For a further selection of Brown's prose, see Sanders, Mark A. (ed.) A Son's Return: Selected Essays of Sterling A. Brown. Boston, Northeastern UP.
|Title||Sterling Brown: "Stray Notes on Jazz"||Type of Content||Other Writing by Poets|
|Criticism Author||Sterling Brown||Criticism Target||Sterling A. Brown|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||05 Jun 2015|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||No Data|
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