Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Volume Nine: Stolen Moments – Cool Jazz and Hard Bop

190. Ahmad Jamal: Poinciana 
(Buddy Bernier-Nat Simon) 1957

191. Bill Evans Trio: Come Rain or Come Shine 
(Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer) 1959

192. The Dave Brubeck Quartet: Take Five 
(Paul Desmond) 1959

193. The Gerry Mulligan Quartet featuring Lee Konitz: Lady Be Good 
(George Gershwin-Ira Gershwin) 1953

194. Vince Guaraldi Trio: Cast Your Fate to the Wind 
(Vince Guaraldi-Carel Werber) 1963

195. Boots Randolph: Gravy Waltz
(Steve Allen-Ray Brown) 1964

196. The Nashville All-Stars: Nashville to Newport
(Chet Atkins) 1960

197. Hank Garland: All the Things You Are
(Jerome Kern- Oscar Hammerstein) 1961

198. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Dat Dere 
(Bobby Timmons-Oscar Brown, Jr.) 1960

199. Oliver Nelson: Stolen Moments 
(Oliver Nelson) 1961

200. Horace Silver: Song for My Father 
(Horace Silver) 1964

201. Lee Morgan: The Sidewinder 
(Lee Morgan) 1963

202. Donald Byrd: Slow Drag 
(Donald Byrd) 1967


"I hear you're mad about Brubeck /
I like your eyes, I like him, too /
He's an artist, a pioneer /
We've got to have some music on the new frontier"

-- Donald Fagen, "New Frontier"

Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, in the 1981 song “New Frontier” conjures up visions of bomb shelters ("that my dad built") and Tuesday Weld and, of course, Dave Brubeck to depict a combination of angst and hope that was intended to signal suburban life in the early 1960s.  The most commercially popular jazz of the late 50s and early 60s has become, for many, as it did for the jazz-influenced Fagen, the aural signature of this period – recognizable, catchy melodies on sax, trumpet, or piano over supple rhythmic support, most often loudly-mixed double-bass and drumming that incorporates a lot of snare hits and crisp rolls.  Easier to understand for non-jazz audiences than the works of the genres’ acknowledged masters – Mingus, Monk, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, the work of jazz’s lesser lights (in a very fertile era)- Dave Brubeck, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal - achieved critical and commercial success by simplifying the work of the bop masters (in a relationship not dissimilar to that between the “High Moderns” and the rest of the modernists) into a formally sophisticated, yet easily digestible form – a music for the American era John F. Kennedy, upon his election, termed “The New Frontier”.

As rock and roll's popularity increasingly fell sway to an antagonistic media’s depiction of it as merely the end result of Payola, and traditional popular singing crept ever closer to supper club irrelevance, what we have come to call post-bop, became the music of discerning listeners or, at least, of those who professed to be such - the young, the hip, the affluent denizens of an imagined Camelot.  The term post-bop is something of a misnomer, and, like doo-wop, it is a useful term applied after the fact.  Essentially, the term encompasses what, at the time, were referred to as cool jazz and hard bop (the tendency of many critics also to include free and out jazz within this umbrella term merely serves to render post-bop a measure of time rather than style).

The two schools, cool jazz and hard bop, were usually portrayed as opposites, with cool corresponding to the West Coast, predominantly white players who played lighter, more tightly arranged, more European-influenced jazz, while their East Coast counterparts, who played hard bop, tended to play more hard-hitting, more improvisational, more r&b influenced jazz.  To contemporary ears, both schools seem to draw very heavily from the same sources – Charlie Parker, obviously, but also Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, both of whom have been proclaimed originators in both styles.  What really defines cool jazz and hard bop as parts of the same larger style, post-bop, is the sense of freshness and newness that propels the best of both – it’s not called “New Frontier” jazz, but it may as well be: the era’s best music is defined by a sort of jaunty optimism suggestive of Louis Armstrong or King Oliver coupled with the calm, assuredness of Parker or Miles Davis.  

In short, this is the moment at which jazz reaches critical momentum as “America’s music”; despite the actual or perceived racial divides between East and West Coasts, most of the era’s most celebrated groups were integrated and their harmonic and rhythmic sophistication seemed effortless, no longer the occasionally forced attempts at European relevance (see the Modern Jazz Quartet), but comfortably nodding to traditional jazz, swing, bop, and, even rhythm and blues.  Of course, not everyone saw it that way; amateur critic Charles Mingus was extremely vocal about the commercialization of jazz, condemning its simplifications while taking credit for many of its innovations.  Brubeck himself was apparently dismayed that he won widespread praise (including a 1954 Time magazine cover) before many of his (African American) idols, especially Duke Ellington.  However, there is no denying that the post-bop period, from the very beginnings of cool jazz in the late 40s until the waning years of post-bop in the late 60s represent the last time that there regularly were jazz hit singles, that the Newport Jazz Festival became a major cultural event, and that jazz became the preferred music for producers of television shows and movie soundtracks.  Indeed, given what follows post-bop in the history of jazz (and popular music, in general), this is the last time that contemporary jazz had a true identity in the mass media; the music that most listeners identify most readily as jazz tends to belong to this era and most contemporary jazz artists who play regularly for remuneration, fifty years later, continue to abide by the stylistic tropes of this, the post-bop era.

The sheer number of accomplished and even visionary players during this period is one of the results of the apprenticeships and cross-fertilizations that followed Charlie Parker’s ascendancy in the late 40s.  Cool jazz is generally thought to begin, as do so many movements in jazz, with the mercurial Miles Davis.  The 1949 and 1950 sessions eventually collected as The Birth of the Cool found Davis, still himself part of Parker’s group, experimenting with a larger, more orchestral ensemble that featured, among others, saxophonists Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz, trombonists J. J. Johnson and Kai Winding, pianist John Lewis, and drummer Max Roach, with some arrangements by Gil Evans.  The music is less frenetic than Parker’s bop and, despite its New York origins, provided the rubric for what, spearheaded by Mulligan, Konitz, trumpeter / vocalist Chet Baker, and pianist Dave Brubeck, would become West Coast jazz.

Dave Brubeck
For many, Brubeck is the face of this era in jazz – white, usually wearing horn-rimmed glasses and shirtsleeves (rather than the suit and tie of Miles Davis), he appears collegiate and even professorial, in a natural sciences way, as perhaps befits his status as standard-bearer for the music of the Sputnik, Cold War, race-to-the-moon era.  His “Take Five” with its sparkling Paul Desmond alto sax melody and 5/4 time signature is the genre’s anthem, used cinematically countless times not only to evoke the period, but also to evoke the uniquely American angsty hopefulness that characterized the period.  Brubeck’s piano playing was occasionally criticized at the time for being too theoretical (read “too white”), but this criticism could perhaps be levied at the other major non-hard-bop pianists of the time.

Ahmad Jamal
Among those more or less associated with West Coast jazz are Vince Guaraldi, Bill Evans, and Ahmad Jamal.  Jamal and Evans are occasionally derided as progenitors of “cocktail jazz” – piano trio covers of standards that repay close attention, but could easily become background music (and, indeed, Evans and Jamal both released live albums on which clanking dishes and drink orders can easily be heard).  Jamal’s spacious style, as exemplified in the hit “Poinciana”, in which long pauses and sparse and broken chords were used to especially dramatic effect, was especially influential on  Miles Davis’s late 50s modal work.  If the mythology is to be believed, Davis told pianist Red Garland to “play like this cat”.  Evans himself played on parts of Davis’s Kind of Blue, before releasing a series of intricate piano trio albums on which he, bassist Scott LaFaro, and drummer Paul Motian expanded on Jamal’s deconstructive chordal experiments to produce rhymically and harmonically probing variations on standards.  Like most of the jazz of this era, their work can be mistaken for background music, but repays the attention of the serious listener.  Vince Guaraldi’s own trio work explored some of the same territory, spiced with early incorporations of bossa nova and Latin jazz influences; “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”, written for the soundtrack to the film Black Orpheus, is perhaps his best work, although most all contemporary listeners know him for the music he composed (“Linus and Lucy”) for the Peanuts cartoon specials.

If there is still a major sonic difference to be found between West Coast cool jazz and East Coast hard bop, it resides in the role of the piano.  Hard bop’s origins are usually traced to New York City in the mid-50s and to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.  Drummer Blakey famously apprenticed dozens of major figures in jazz: the saxophonists Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter, and Branford Marsalis; trumpeters Clifford Brown, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Chuck Mangione, and Wynton Marsalis; and pianists Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons, and Keith Jarrett.  Blakey’s grooves were insistent, his soloists deft, and his pianists followed the pattern set by Horace Silver – bluesy chording and comping that drew heavily on rhythm and blues and swing, in marked contrast to the spacious style of Jamal or the more cerebral swinging of Brubeck or Evans.  Blakey’s “Dat Dere” (with pianist Bobby Timmons), Morgan’s “The Sidewinder”, Donald Byrd’s “Slow Drag”, and, especially, Silver’s “Song for My Father” (later the basis for Steely Dan’s “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number”) are prime examples of the hard bop produced for Blue Note Records in the sixties.  

Boots Randolph
The height of popularity for the jazz of the New Frontier arrived, at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, slightly in advance of Kennedy’s New Frontier speech.  Bert Stern’s documentary, Jazz on a Summer’s Day, which depicted the 1959 festival was a critical and commercial success, heaping attention and praise upon George Wein’s six-year-old venture to bring jazz (and also blues (Muddy Waters) and rock ‘n’ roll (Chuck Berry)) annually to Newport, Rhode Island for an outdoor festival.  The 1960 festival promised to break attendance records, but conflicts between the legions of (predominantly white and drunk) college students, the residents of well-heeled Newport, and the musicians themselves resulted in rioting that caused the festival’s early cancellation (after one day).  Charles Mingus and Max Roach, among others, had boycotted the festival, citing commercialization and racism; Langston Hughes wrote a poem called “Goodbye Newport Blues” which he sang onstage with Muddy Waters’s band; and the festival was barred from taking place the following year.  Among the more interesting by-products of the riot and the festival’s cancellation is the album After the Riot at Newport, a compendium of performances recorded by a contingent of Nashville session musicians who were due to appear at the festival.  Amidst the still well-known cool jazz and hard bop stands an important but largely forgotten footnote: there was a brief, commercially unsuccessful Nashville bop scene, populated by that city’s ace session musicians, who, off-the-clock, tended to play jazz.  After the Riot finds guitarists Hank Garland and Chet Atkins, vibist Gary Burton, violinist Brenton Banks, pianist Floyd Cramer, saxophonist Boots Randolph, and the ubiquitous Nashville rhythm section of Bob Moore (bass) and Buddy Harman (drums) covering Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver, and improvising a series of hard bop-riff tunes.  The experiment, while artistically successful, did nothing commercially, but that didn’t prevent guitarist Hank Garland from collaborating, in 1961, with Burton, bassist Joe Benjamin (who’d worked with Gerry Mulligan and Roland Kirk), and drummer Joe Morello (from the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet) on the superb Jazz Winds from a New Direction.  Post-bop was so much the lingua franca of working musicians in the early sixties that Randolph, most famous for the rockabilly novelty “Yakety Sax” (known to many as the music that accompanies a sped-up Benny Hill chasing scantily-clad women) produced the hard-bop Hip Boots!, with guitarist Grady Martin joining him, Cramer, Moore, and Harman.  Unfortunately, despite its status as his favorite among his own albums, his country and easy listening audiences resisted its charms; Nashville bop as a movement was stillborn.  As hindsight (and numerous novels and films about the sixties) reveals,  the uneasiness and angst that underlay the hopefulness of the jazz of the new frontier masked deeper social, political, and racial tensions.  Never again would jazz enjoy the sort of mass popularity reached by 1960, and the backlash against commercial jazz was coming not from Nashville or even from rock and roll, but from within: the curmudgeonly Charles Mingus was, once again, just slightly ahead of the curve. 


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Volume Eight: The Masochism Tango – Lounge, Jazz Singing, and Space Age Bachelor Pad Music

163. Tony Bennett: The Best Is Yet to Come
(Cy Coleman-Carolyn Leigh) 1962

164. Jo Stafford: I've Got the World on a String
(Harold Arlen-Ted Koehler) 1960

165. Frankie Laine: I Let Her Go

(Hal Blair-Don Robertson) 1963

166. Rosemary Clooney and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra: I Get Along Without You Very Well
(Hoagy Carmichael) 1961

167. Peggy Lee: Fever
(Eddie Cooley-John Davenport-Peggy Lee) 1958

168. Keely Smith with Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra: What Is This Thing Called Love?
(Cole Porter) 1959

169. Louis Prima (Featuring Keely Smith with Sam Butera and the Witnesses): Jump, Jive an' Wail
(Louis Prima) 1956

170. Dinah Washington with Quincy Jones and his Orchestra: Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?
(Louis Jordan-Billy Austin) 1956

171. Bobby Darin: Mack the Knife
(Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht-Marc Blitzstein) 1959

172. Annie Ross: Twisted
(Wardell Gray-Annie Ross) 1952

173. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross: Cloudburst
(Leroy Kirkland-Jimmy Harris) 1960

174. Bob Dorough: Baltimore Oriole
(Hoagy Carmichael-Paul Francis Webster) 1957

175. Chet Baker: My Funny Valentine
(Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart) 1956

176. Sarah Vaughan: Stormy Weather
(Harold Arlen-Ted Koehler) 1960

177. Betty Carter: Open the Door
(Betty Carter) 1964

178. Henry Mancini: Moon River
(Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer) 1961

179. Neal Hefti: Mr. Freeze
(Neal Hefti) 1966

180. The Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny: Quiet Village [single version]
(Les Baxter) 1959

181. The Exotic Sounds of Arthur Lyman: Taboo
(Margarita Lecuona-Bob Russell) 1958

182. The Three Suns: Moritat
(Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht) 1960

183. Esquivel: Sentimental Journey
(Les Brown-Ben Homer-Bud Green) 1961

184. Enoch Light and the Light Brigade featuring Doc Severinsen: Night and Day
(Cole Porter) 1964

185. Andy Williams: Can't Get Used to Losing You
(Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman) 1963

186. Dean Martin: Ain't That A Kick In the Head
(Jimmy Van Heusen-Sammy Cahn) 1960

187. Sammy Davis, Jr.: That Old Black Magic
(Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer) 1955

188. The Swingle Singers and the Modern Jazz Quartet: Fugue #2 in C Minor
(Johann Sebastian Bach) 1967

189. Tom Lehrer: Masochism Tango [Orchestrated Version]
(Tom Lehrer) 1960


"These are the fifties, you know. The disgusting, posturing fifties."

-- Hannah Arendt.

The game show What’s My Line? (which ran, in its original incarnation, from 1950 to 1967) provides a fascinating time capsule of the American entertainment scene in the mid-twentieth century. For those unfamiliar with the show, four panelists in evening dress, men in tuxedos, women in evening gowns, attempted, with the guidance of moderator John Charles Daly, to guess the occupations of contestants with unusual or interesting vocations (a woman who paints dots on dice or a man who makes hammocks, for instance). The three regular panelists, who were joined by a rotating cast of male celebrities, were, for most of the show’s run, Broadway columnist/investigative journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, actress-talk show host Arlene Francis, and publisher Bennett Cerf, who had published the first American edition of Joyce’s Ulysses. In addition to the unusually-employed contestants, each edition of the show also features a Mystery Guest, – most often someone from what we now call “The Entertainment Industry”, but which the celebrity panel invariably refers to as “The Lively Arts.” What is most interesting to contemporary eyes, apart from the formality and occasional casual sexism and other political incorrectness of the panelists is the treatment of mystery guests from the music world. Inevitably, one of the probing questions asked by the blindfolded panelists to someone they’ve identified as a singer is, “Are you popular on jukeboxes?” or, phrased differently, “Are you listened to by teenyboppers?” Although few, if any, genuine rock and roll singers appeared on What’s My Line?, there is a great distinction made between those that the panelists refer to as “supper club singers” – Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Frankie Laine – and mere popular singers of the rock and roll, rhythm and blues, or, heaven forbid, country persuasions. The implied disdain for these forms is readily apparent; indeed, Kilgallen famously provoked country diva Patsy Cline’s ire by referring in print to the denizens of the Grand Ole Opry as “hillbillies.” The message, to observers of popular culture and, especially, popular music, is clear: rock and roll, country, rhythm and blues, were music for children, for the uncultured, for the non-intellectual, not fit for the “society page meets the lively arts” world represented by What’s My Line?

While rock and roll was dominating the newly-instituted top forty radio format and sales of singles, and modern jazz was reaching a high water mark for musical complexity within an ostensibly popular form, “adult” listeners (mostly white suburban-dwellers) were the key audience for more accessible and superficially more sophisticated forms of music. These forms, which, like bop, were musical descendants of swing, are now generally subsumed under the somewhat misleading moniker “lounge.”

Lounge is a catch-all term that, as with doo-wop, wasn’t applied during the music’s first era of relevance. In the late-eighties, scavenging record collectors found the wealth of old jazz, r&b, and rock records drying up, and turned instead to the music that had been termed most disreputable by the architects of “serious” rock criticism – the adult pop of the fifties and early sixties – which they dubbed “lounge”. Early rock critics, in establishing their territory as chroniclers of a serious art form, created their own, as Harold Bloom would have it, “map of misreading” for all popular, non-rock (or roots-influenced), non-modern jazz popular music. While discarding a good deal of genuinely soulless non-rock (Lawrence Welk, the Ray Charles Singers), these critics also tended to write off many substantial interpreters of pre-rock American popular song (Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney) as fixed points within the very Establishment against which rock and roll was rebelling: Leave It to Beaver, the Red Scare, a perceived mindless conformity. The singers that the What’s My Line? panelists had praised for their nightclub appearances had become, regardless of soulfulness or ability, by virtue of their popularity as the music of the Baby Boom rock journalists’ parents, the enemy.

Further, in attempting to cement rock as a true art form, rock journalists sought distance from the frivolity (and kitsch) associated with “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music” and Exotica, minimizing the debt to jazz held by the era’s best singers and arrangers. Thus, under the umbrella term “lounge,” we find popular singers with roots in swing or jazz, jazz singers who played in nightclubs, instrumental arrangements of standards, both clever and not, and muzak, music intended to exist purely as background: the beginning of the continuing genre of “music for people who don’t like music.”

In order to understand the development of the, shall we say, lounge-related, genres, and how they came to be grouped together, it is necessary to consider several important factors. Although muzak, the generic term derived from the trademarked subscription service (for businesses, stores, and restaurants) is frequently grouped with lounge, its artists derive little influence from jazz. Mantovani, Percy Faith, 101 Strings, and similar artists usually classified as muzak may well be deserving of the derision of rock and jazz writers; they are really more closely aligned with what was once, charitably, called “light classical music” – symphonic renderings, occasionally with stiff, white-bread, “boy-girl choruses” (the technical term used by purveyors of muzak) that are purposely un-emotional: designated background music. Most often, this genre is now referred to as “easy listening,” a term often and unfortunately confused with lounge itself. A small, but illustrative digression on easy listening concerns a choral director named Ray Charles, famous for his work in the early fifties on the Perry Como television variety series whose Ray Charles Singers recorded the ubiquitous jingle “Letters, We Get Letters.” An oft-told fifties musician joke goes roughly like this:

First musician: “I’ve got a session next week with Ray Charles.”
Second musician: “Which one? The one who’s blind or the one who’s deaf?”

Following the ascent to stardom of the Genius of Soul, the “deaf” Ray Charles spent his career billing himself as “The Other Ray Charles.” Generations of thrift store buyers of albums by the Ray Charles Singers have been mystified by their curious lack of soul.

One characteristic of lounge that is shared with easy listening is the primacy of sound quality. Rock and roll and roots-related genres were still, in the nineteen fifties, singles-oriented; their listeners were generally young or poor or both, and singles were usually recorded quickly, often in less-than-adequate studios, and mixed to sound good on small, cheap AM radios, turntables, or jukeboxes. Meanwhile, with the economic boom of the post-war era, high fidelity stereo equipment [stereo albums were widely introduced in 1958] became a fast growing hobby / fetish among suburbanites. Much of what we consider lounge consists of material recorded either to take advantage of the greater playing time of albums or to show off expensive stereo equipment. The former can be applied to the series of concept albums, albums devoted to a single theme or similar songs, pioneered by Frank Sinatra, and mastered in Ella Fitzgerald’s series of recordings of the great songs of the Great American Songbook: the works of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Duke Ellington. Stereo albums enabled these interpretive singers to create longer works than 45 or 78 rpm singles had, creating and sustaining deeper and more complex moods. Once Sinatra and Fitzgerald had established that there was a market for sophisticated jazz vocal interpretations of standards, a great number of jazz-oriented singers who had been forced down the primrose path of light-pop by Mitch Miller followed their example. Frankie Laine, who had apprenticed imitating Louis Armstrong and Hoagy Carmichael (and even recorded, as one of his first records, Armstrong’s “Black and Blue”) alternated small combo jazz albums with more commercial albums of Western songs in an often-bizarre amalgams of big band and folk song. Laine became so identifiable with Wild West Songs that Mel Brooks eventually enlisted him to perform the theme to Blazing Saddles. Rosemary Clooney developed into an interpretative singer worthy as well of comparison to her mentor, Billie Holiday, while Tony Bennett, Jo Stafford, and Peggy Lee developed as night club singers, equally comfortable fronting big bands and small combos. Their work set the template for what eventually became the larger, less-nuanced, Las Vegas style lounge acts of Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Louis Prima, and Keely Smith.

As well as spurring performers who genuinely performed in lounges, Sinatra’s and Fitzgerald’s examples provided for the great era of interpretive jazz singers: pioneers of vocalese (roughly, fitting lyrics to bop solos) Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, Bob Dorough (who went on to sing and compose “I’m Just a Bill” and other Schoolhouse Rock songs), Sarah Vaughan, Chet Baker, and Betty Carter – vocalists whose style really was jazz, masquerading as adult pop.

Among instrumental lounge material, we find many extraordinarily well-recorded albums (even by contemporary standards) designed to show off the wonders of stereophonic sound; among the more interesting artists were Enoch Light, who recorded under his own name and numerous pseudonyms, on his Command Records label clever, jazz-tinged arrangements of popular standards [His version of "Autumn Leaves" is the main sample in the Mad Men theme, as well.} Juan Garcia Esquivel pioneered “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music,” gorgeously recorded arrangements of popular standards and original compositions that pitted strange percussion, use of unusual instruments (theramin, harpsichord) against big band and vocalese choruses.

This leads us to the importance of arranging within the genre; swing was a music that depended, for much of its success, not only on the musical talents of its musicians, and a high quality repertoire, but on the work of arrangers who usually gave each band, through variations in timbre, its unique flavor. Roots-derived musics - rock and roll, rhythm and blues, country – and post-swing jazz didn’t require the services of professional arrangers in the way that swing had, but there were still countless talented arrangers (Nelson Riddle, Quincy Jones, Henry Mancini, Neal Hefti) who had worked with big bands, who found themselves, in the late fifties migrating to work supporting singers (Riddle, with Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Keely Smith; Jones, with Dinah Washington) or composing and arranging soundtracks (Riddle and Jones, as well as Mancini and Hefti). Swing had not died when big bands were replaced on the charts by singers; it merely morphed into lounge.

In this sense, indeed, it is possible to see the logic in grouping all of these seemingly disparate genres together: when swing ceased to be the predominant style in jazz, it didn’t simply evolve into bop, as many jazz histories have it. Rather, it split in two: the more adventurous musicians (Charlie Parker, Miles Davis et al) developed bop (and its descendants), but the vast majority of swing musicians, singers, and arrangers (and swing was a huge nationwide business, with hundreds, if not thousands, of working big bands) did not have the inclination to follow Bird and Diz into the often-poverty-filled areas of modern jazz. The criticisms most often levied at the lounge genres are their commerciality and their soullessness. Certainly, these genres share a surface commerciality, but their arrangements (which often include humming, whistling, odd-combinations of instruments and percussion, and Spike Jones-like onomatopoeic moments), often coupled with a “singer-as-actor” in the mode drawn from Frank Sinatra or Billie Holiday evince a supreme self-awareness which is neither empty-headed nor necessarily unsoulful.

From this vantage point, it is necessary to see lounge as the forgotten sibling of bop, post-bop, and free jazz. And, arguably, with its self-reflexivity and humor, it is possible to see the work of Enoch Light or the Three Suns (whose organ-accordion-guitar line-up manages not only to produce actual music, but actually clever, soulful music) as swing’s postmodern period. This postmodernist slant is also heard in the satirical songs of Tom Lehrer (who is not classed as “lounge” per se), but shares many of its sensibilities, and in the "bop meets Bach" fusions of the Swingle Singers. The Exotica of Martin Denny or Arthur Lyman, whose Pacific-influenced songs (better classed as “soundscapes”) include bird calls made by band members and a variety of percussion instruments unheard in any Western pop music until the “World Music” explosion of the nineteen nineties; these records hearken back to the pre-Swing jubilant silliness of Dixieland and suggest anything but conformity. Certainly, nineties lounge revivalists Pizzicato Five and Combustible Edison recognized that much of this music was in its own way, subversive of the black and white, McCarthy hearings, Leave It to Beaver world of the nineteen fifties, and really was an alternate vision of the future of jazz, one that historians most unfortunately tend to forget.


Friday, April 9, 2010

Volume Seven: Better Get Hit in Your Soul – Bop, Third Stream, and Chamber Jazz


150. Mose Allison: Back Country Suite (Blues)
(Mose Allison) 1957

151. Dexter Gordon: Love for Sale
(Cole Porter) 1962

152. The Jay and Kai Trombone Octet: Night In Tunisia
(Dizzy Gillespie) 1956

153. Del Close and John Brent: Basic Hip
(Del Close-John Brent) 1959

154. Joe Morello Quartet featuring Art Pepper: Yardbird Suite
(Charlie Parker) 1956

155. Sonny Rollins: St. Thomas
(Sonny Rollins) 1956

156. Moondog: Chaconne in G Major
(Moondog) 1977

157. The Modern Jazz Quartet: Django
(John Lewis) 1954

158. The Jimmy Giuffre 3: The Train and the River
(Jimmy Giuffre) 1956

159. Charles Mingus: Better Git It In Your Soul
(Charles Mingus) 1959

160. Thelonious Monk: Misterioso
(Thelonious Monk) 1948

161. Miles Davis: So What
(Miles Davis) 1959

162. John Coltrane: My Favorite Things
(Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein) 1960


“Basic to hip is the concept of digging: to dig. Mr. Geets Romo, how would you define ‘dig’?”

“Well, you know, man, like when you dig something.”

-- Del Close and John Brent, “Basic Hip”

Actor and satirist Del Close, in his improvised collaboration (with actor John Brent), How to Speak Hip, explored the innate difficulties of the terminology applied to music and culture within the fifties jazz world (and within mass media understandings of ‘hip culture’). While the singles-oriented rock and roll of the period was splintering into countless subgenres still defined by the catch-all term rock and roll, jazz was splitting into camps with ever-evolving and ever-more-confusing names, most often defined by how they differed from the jazz that had preceded them: (be)bop, post-bop, cool jazz, East Coast, West Coast, chamber jazz, the Third Stream. All of these were lumped together by the post-war, pre-JFK press into a catch-all term of their own: modern jazz.

Modern Jazz, a term almost never used today, was the shorthand for post-Swing (which was still, in some quarters, synonymous with “popular music”), post-World War II jazz that was not traditional, Dixieland jazz (as practiced still, in the fifties, by Louis Armstrong and dozens of professional and amateur musicians). Modern jazz was one of the first, if not the first, movement in popular music to define itself by its inaccessibility to the mainstream, in contradistinction to traditional or Dixieland jazz; Chuck Berry sang, in “Rock and Roll Music”, “I got no kick against modern jazz / Unless they try to play it too darn fast / Lose the beauty of the melody / Until it sounded like a symphony.” Indeed, in the world of modern jazz, building on the achievements of Charlie Parker (speed, unusual and difficult harmonic structures) and Duke Ellington (ambitious, thematic compositions and writing to the strengths of individual virtuoso soloists) through to the overt (The Modern Jazz Quartet) and covert (Charles Mingus) aspirations to symphonic complexity, these were often the very points of the existence of modern jazz. Modern jazz became, in the world of the popular press, along with beat poetry, recreational drugs, bongos, and berets, one of the central accoutrements of beat (more likely rendered “beatnik”) culture.

Jazz traditionalists separated themselves from the growing movement: no less than Louis Armstrong parodied Dizzy Gillespie in song, deriding “flatted fifths” while wearing a beret, and Tommy Dorsey accused the progenitors of bop of being communists. As often would prove the case in the popular culture to come, the outsider form termed modern jazz, would eventually provide the cultural norm; what most contemporary listeners consider jazz is not Dixieland nor swing, but the work of the bop and post-bop masters, Parker and his acolytes, particularly the four major figures: Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus.

With the introduction of the long-playing record in 1948, jazz composers and performers could now record, in their entirety, their lengthy compositions, thus pushing jazz farther from the popular singles/teenage audience. Furthering this separation was the total non-danceability of Parker-influenced bop: signs at Birdland and other jazz clubs appeared, emphatically proclaiming “No Dancing”. Bop, as practiced by Parker, was an intellectual form, demanding to players and listeners alike. While often blinding in its speed, it was subtle in its execution, and required classical-music-like concentration in order to be played or appreciated in full, a tall order for popular music listeners of the day, and one to which its creators did not choose to pander. As the central conceit of Del Close’s “Basic Hip” suggests, modern jazz doesn’t need to be explained: “In other words, the phrase ‘I dig’ not only means ‘I understand’, but ‘I am a special sort of person who understands in a very special sort of way.’”

It is tempting, then, to associate modern jazz with earlier artistic movements termed modernist. Certainly, its difficulty and often seemingly abstract quality, prompted the untrained to liken this jazz to Jackson Pollock’s paintings, The Waste Land, and Stravinski’s Rite of Spring. And a case could be made that, in terms of intentional elitism, the modernists of jazz share with their literary forbears an affinity for complex allusions to earlier work (dropping bars or themes from the classical canon, popular song, and Dixieland standard into their compositions with equal ease), but the comparison strains under further scrutiny. Mingus’s and Coltrane’s work, particularly, are better likened to the later works of T.S. Eliot (Mingus, late in life, toyed with creating a musical version of Eliot’s Four Quartets, and enlisted Joni Mitchell to assist in that very purpose), attempting to rebuild a structure out of the broken “shards” of the past, with Mingus eventually returning to quasi-classical structures and themes (Pre-Bird) that he first explored as a teenage composer and Coltrane relentlessly pursuing spiritual aims within his music.

What jazz musicians and composers drew from the innovations of Charlie Parker, in addition to a propensity for lightning-fast playing and heroin addiction, was a questing for the next big development, a pushing against any and all barriers that produced the most fertile period in jazz history, one in which all genres of jazz were intermingled, in the best of the era, in bewildering and sublime displays of both technique and soulfulness. It is not an accident that many of the major figures of the fifties apprenticed with Parker or Dizzy Gillespie (“bop’s chief organizer”, as he is called in Ken Burns’ Jazz). It is also not an accident that many of the leading figures were finally catching up to the compositional innovations of Duke Ellington, himself still producing challenging works throughout the fifties; Ellington’s unconventional chord voicings and his trademark of providing solo space within otherwise tightly-structured compositions inspired Monk, Mingus, and other bop veterans not only to cover standards in Parker-like deconstruction, but to write their own ambitious pieces.

Initially, the post-Parker jazz landscape divided itself into East Coast and West Coast schools, much as hip-hop would do forty or so years later. East Coast jazzers favored fast-played, technically dazzling emulations of Parker; West Coast jazzers, who were predominantly, but not exclusively, white, preferred to play cool – laid back, but still harmonically complex, often including motifs and arrangements drawn from classical music or the late-period jazz-classical fusions of Artie Shaw or Stan Kenton. The era’s best musicians (especially Mingus and Davis) straddled these lines, eventually obliterating them. Parker’s greatest pupils, the saxophonists Art Pepper and Sonny Rollins carried Parker’s legacy in different ways, Pepper as stylistic imitator, Rollins continuing Parker’s sense of the innate possibilities of jazz (and particularly, the saxophone) as tool for personal exploration and expression. Tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, a contemporary of Parker’s in the early bop era, took Lester Young’s influence and big, bold tone through the post-bop era and, in turn, influenced John Coltrane, who would prove to rival Parker in influence and popularity.

In the wake of Parker’s death in 1955 at age thirty-four, from the accumulated damage of years of substance abuse, the jazz innovation most lauded in the jazz press was The Third Stream. The Third Stream, a term coined by composer Gunther Schuller, described a music that was neither jazz nor classical music, but combined and “required proficiency” in both. Schuller was adamant that “classical music played on jazz instruments” and “jazz played by traditionally classical instruments” were not Third Stream jazz. Today, the term is often applied to the collaborations of Miles Davis and arranger Gil Evans, to the orchestral works of Charles Mingus, and to the “Bach meets bop” approach of John Lewis’s Modern Jazz Quartet. A rather more efficient and descriptive term is “chamber jazz”, that is, jazz that, like chamber music, is played by small ensembles, often drawing inspiration from classical (usually baroque) music.

While the Third Stream momentarily enchanted some critics, few works found great popular success, although Miles Davis and Gil Evans’s Sketches of Spain and the elegant Modern Jazz Quartet did. The MJQ, all veterans of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band usually wore tuxedos in performance and didn’t interact with their audiences, aspiring to not only classical forms, but also classical decorum, often exhibiting, even in their tribute to Django Reinhardt, a humorlessness most foreign to jazz. Jimmy Giuffre, a West Coast proponent of the Third Stream, called his music “blues-based folk jazz”; Giuffre’s trio, which included guitarist Jim Hall, was a major influence on the British folk-blues revival, and particularly on guitarist Davy Graham. J. J. Johnson, a trombonist who had played with Parker and with Miles Davis, was also classed among the Third Stream musicians, though his most popular success occurred with a series of Parker-influenced big band recordings with fellow trombonist Kai Winding, and, at times, up to six other trombonists; their reworking of Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” is perhaps that song’s definitive version. Ironically, the most perfect fusion of classical form and jazz spirit, including its humor, belonged to Moondog, a blind, homeless, New York composer who dressed in homemade Viking-inspired clothing and whose compositions, like those of Thelonious Monk, bear an instantly recognizable signature and a joyousness redolent of Dixieland.

While the Third Stream and chamber jazz aspired to a pseudo-European seriousness of purpose, Mississippi-born singer-songwriter-pianist Mose Allison was moving in the opposite direction, embracing the form and humor of the blues, as filtered through the fierce technique of bop. Allison’s major influences were Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael, Ray Charles, and Hank Williams, and his laconic, verbally-complex, self-aware, if not self conscious, blues songs went on to influence more rock performers than jazz ones: Bob Dylan, the Who, the Yardbirds, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello among them.

The figures most difficult to classify generically, finally, are the best remembered of the period. The works of Monk, Mingus, Davis, and Coltrane, among non-jazz listeners today, are the figures most often heard, and their albums the most frequent to appear in non-jazz collections. Pianist-composer Thelonious Monk appeared at the height of bop in the late forties, seemingly fully-formed as personality and composer, and continued until the late sixties, often re-recording the same set of highly-logical, mathematically-complex, eminently catchy and humorous compositions until the general public caught up enough to appreciate his percussive, impressionistic style. Bassist-composer Charles Mingus, who apprenticed with Armstrong, Ellington, and Lionel Hampton, wrote and recorded prodigious amounts of material from the forties to the seventies, drawing from nearly all of jazz’s styles within his sprawling, episodic compositions and “group improvisations.” Accused by the press of writing works that were too cerebral, Mingus responded with the album Blues and Roots, the songs “Haitian Fight Song” (from The Clown) and “Better Git It in Your Soul” (from Mingus Ah Um), shattering fusions of gospel, blues, and hard bop that convinced all doubters of Mingus’s pedigree in all forms of American music.

Miles Davis, impeccably dressed and personally unapproachable, technically brilliant and taciturn, who began with Parker, was one of the first players of cool jazz, exhausted the possibilities of the Third Stream, developed modal (non-chord-change-based jazz) from ideas of Mingus’s and pianist Ahmad Jamal’s, perfected hard bop, essentially invented jazz-rock fusion, and ended his career with popular, though critically-derided pop-jazz that birthed today’s smooth jazz. He is, for many people, the face of jazz. Kind of Blue, the highest selling album in jazz history, with “So What” as its opening track, is usually the first jazz album recommended to non-jazz listeners who want to explore the genre.

In many ways, the jazz of the fifties represents a generation of musicians coming to terms with the legacy of Charlie Parker, and with the rapidly-changing role of jazz in popular culture. Saxophonist-composer John Coltrane, who had played with Parker and Monk became a part of Davis’s quintet (and appeared on Kind of Blue) before taking Parker’s mantle as the guiding force of jazz. Stylistically, he drew speed and fearsome technique from Parker, but his “sheets of sound” style was overpowering where Parker’s was precise, substituting metallic howls of ecstacy and agony for Parker’s intellect and humor. His covers, especially of the Rodgers and Hart “My Favorite Things”, were not so much deconstructions or reinventions as explorations, pushing the harmonic and rhythmic structures of songs through endless inventive variations and straining the songs’ structures close to, but not past, the breaking point. His relentless quest, eventually giving birth to free jazz, and inspiring jazz’s infatuation with India, mysticism, and Afro-centrism, was ultimately, the truest heir to Parker’s spirit, harnessing its technique to his own spiritual concerns, while moving jazz further still from the mainstream of American popular music, and, closer, without the stated pretensions of the Third Stream or chamber jazz, to something like art.


Thursday, April 1, 2010

Volume Six: Don’t You Just Know It? – Soul, Blues, Instrumentals, Novelties, and Doo Wop

122. Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns: Don't You Just Know It
(Huey "Piano" Smith-Johnny Vincent) 1958

123. Little Willie John: Leave My Kitten Alone
(William E. John-Titus Turner-James McDougal) 1959

124. Jackie Wilson: Lonely Teardrops
(Berry Gordy-Tyran Carlo) 1958

125. Clyde McPhatter: Without Love (There Is Nothing)
(Danny Small) 1956

126. Sam Cooke: Bring It on Home
(Sam Cooke) 1962

127. Brook Benton: Kiddio
(Brook Benton-Clyde Otis) 1960

128. Bobby Blue Bland: I Pity the Fool
(Deadric Malone) 1961

129. Sonny Boy Williamson II: Bring It on Home
(Willie Dixon) 1963

130. John Lee Hooker: Boom Boom
(John Lee Hooker) 1961

131. Bing Day: Mama's Place
(Murray Allen-Dan Belloc) 1959

132. Dion and the Belmonts: My Girl the Month of May
(Dion DiMucci) 1966

133. The Belmonts: Come On Little Angel
(Ernest Maresca-Thomas Bogdany) 1962

134. Ricky Nelson: Hello Mary Lou
(Gene Pitney) 1961

135. The Everly Brothers: Wake Up Little Susie
(Boudleaux Bryant-Felice Bryant) 1957

136. Ray Stevens: Ahab the Arab
(Ray Stevens) 1962

137. Chet Atkins: Windy and Warm
(John D. Loudermilk) 1961

138. Bill Justis: Raunchy
(Bill Justis-Sid Manker) 1957

139. Bill Doggett: Honky Tonk (Parts 1 & 2)
(Billy Butler-Bill Doggett-Clifford Scott-Shep Shepherd) 1956

140. Duane Eddy and his "Twangy" Guitar: Rebel Rouser
(Duane Eddy-Lee Hazlewood) 1958

141. The Champs: Tequila
(Daniel Flores) 1958

142. Little Anthony and the Imperials: Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop
(Bob Smith) 1960

143. The Teenagers featuring Frankie Lymon: Why Do Fools Fall in Love?
(Herman Santiago-Jimmy Merchant) 1955

144. The Five Satins: In the Still of the Night
(Fred Parris) 1956

145. The Platters: The Great Pretender
(Buck Ram) 1955

146. The Flamingos: I Only Have Eyes for You
(Harry Warren-Al Dubin) 1959

147. The Coasters: Poison Ivy
(Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller) 1959

148. Mel Torme: Comin' Home Baby
(Bob Dorough-Ben Tucker) 1962

149. Ray Charles: I Believe to My Soul
(Ray Charles) 1959


“In the beginning, ‘The Big Bucks’ were made by low-life chisellers who screwed doo-wop groups out of their royalties. While the chiselers played golf, the singers vanished into the never-never land of needles and cookers.”

-- Frank Zappa

After the advent of Elvis Presley, rock and roll quickly became the biggest business in popular music; Elvis’s first producer, Sam Phillips, had said that he could make a billion dollars if he found a white man who could sing black. With Elvis’s multiple hit singles and albums and his burgeoning career in movies, producers and A&R men quickly followed Phillips’s plan, seeking out not only white singers who could sound black, but also black singers who could be packaged for white audiences. The eccentricities and general wildness of the early rockers, the untamed ‘authenticity’ that made early rock and roll so engaging, thus, was gradually packaged, blown dry, and exploited to a degree not previously seen in popular music.

The received history of rock and roll tells us that the period immediately following Elvis was a fallow land of empty teen idols, declawed covers of r&b classics (cf. Pat Boone’s covers of “Tutti Frutti” and “Ain’t That a Shame”), and string-laden “softened” rock. To some degree this is true. What is more true is that in the period immediately following the birth (or, more accurately, the arrival in mass culture) of rock and roll, more styles emerged and were marketed in more effective, but increasingly artistically corrosive ways. The recently-deceased rock scholar Charlie Gillette identified, in The Sounds of the City, five distinct genres that fell under the general rubric “rock and roll” during the 1954-1956 period: Northern rock (as exemplified by Bill Haley), Southern rock / rockabilly, New Orleans rhythm and blues, Chicago / electric blues, and vocal harmony groups (later, usually, termed “doo-wop”. To these genres, during the remaining years of the fifties can be added soul (essentially gospel-influenced r&b, often with strings joining a standard r&b line-up), instrumental rock, rock and roll novelty records, and teen idols. These genres proliferated after the advent of Top Forty radio, a new formatting approach to radio that involved playing the top selling and top-played jukebox singles, regardless of genre. The sheer amount of money available to producers and A&R representatives meant that all sorts of singles were released in an attempt to gain airplay and sales; there was money to be made if only one could find or create a new trend, a group of random teenagers who could harmonize, a guy with a guitar and some songs, or a guy who couldn’t sing, looked good on tv, and looked good in the suit. Rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, doo-wop, electric blues, instrumentals, novelty and comedy songs, traditional pop, and soul jostled one another on the charts in an enormous money-grab that profited few of the artists while gradually diluting the initial wallop of rock and roll as the soundtrack to teenage delinquency.

Unsurprisingly, a great deal of corruption crept in as small independent labels’s discoveries were bought up by “the men in the shiny suits”, many of whom also owned interests in radio stations or simply paid disc jockeys to play their new discoveries. Some years ago, one of the cofounders of Bee Records, a tiny independent label based in Reading, Pennsylvania, told me his fascinating tale of attempting to discover and nurture acts in this climate [Bee was founded in 1957 and closed shop for good in 1966.] The two men who ran Bee recorded local Reading/Philadelphia-area doo-wop and rockabilly acts. The story goes that, whenever one of Bee’s releases would start to sell locally, “the men in shiny suits”, would come, make an offer that couldn’t be refused, and a larger label would buy up the recording, the publishing rights, and the act’s contract. In most cases, the still-essentially-unknown artists wound up with less money than they started with, off, as Zappa put it, to the “land of needles and cookers”.

All of the behind the scenes corruption, however, should not take away from the artistic innovations that were taking place during this period. The greatest of these surely was the blending of rhythm and blues with gospel-influenced vocals and “sophisticated” arrangements of strings and horns to create soul. Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Brook Benton, Clyde McPhatter, and, most importantly, Ray Charles, the “Genius of Soul”, created the standard definition of soulfulness – a fusion of gospel-derived emotion, prodigious vocal technique, and unabashed sexuality wrapped in arrangments that fused the best of rhythm and blues playing with jazz and Tin Pan Alley-influenced arranging. Not only did they set the standard for black singers to follow, but also for white rock and pop singers in the coming decades from John Lennon to Van Morrison to Bruce Springsteen and on to the melisma-strewn vocal acrobatics displayed weekly on American Idol, in grotesque unintended parody of the genuine article. These artists developed a uniquely American sound that managed to be of the street and of the supper-club – the fifties equivalent of Swing, in essence – a sound that took the best of black and white musical traditions and fused them into something organic and new.

The profusion of soul records in the Top Forty in the late fifties, along with the aforementioned corporate cum organized crime money-grab resulted in a number of unlikely artists recording in the genre; traditional pop singer Mel Torme (one of the last big band era singers to launch a successful solo career) was compelled to record the Bob Dorough-penned blues “Comin’ Home Baby”, backed by vocal group the Cookies (whose original members had morphed into the Raelettes) and scored a hit single; Torme professed to despise the record. The gulf between album-oriented traditional pop singers like Torme, album-oriented jazz artists, and the singles-oriented rockers grew greater, even as the soul singers who had recently crossed-over from gospel gradually crossed over into album success, again with Ray Charles leading the pack.

It is important to note, also, at this point how differently the crossover soul artists (and the Chicago blues artists, also reaching a high point commercially and artistically) construct their identities as artists. Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, and blues originals John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson II (despite his name), and Bobby Blue Bland stake a good deal of their ethos on their personalities as individuals, as creators, as charismatic stage performers, while the purveyors of doo-wop and instrumental rock are largely nameless and faceless assemblages without even nominal leaders to differentiate bands (as, for instance, during the swing era). George Harrison remarked of the Beatles’ first American tour in 1964 that everywhere the Beatles played, the same doo-wop and r&b groups were playing, different line-ups, but the exact same groups. In every city. Multiple touring line-ups of Coasters, Platters, Five Satins were to be found criss-crossing the US at any given time, their members considered interchangeable by the record business, like touring companies of Broadway shows.

Both in nomenclature and style, doo-wop gives us yet another highly-debated genre. The term doo-wop was seldom, if ever, used during the music’s heyday, and some sources claim it wasn’t used at all until the early sixties, or even the early seventies. Essentially, doo-wop is street-corner harmony, itself an outgrowth of urban black gospel music. Hundreds, if not thousands, of vocal groups, mostly black and urban, formed, disbanded, re-formed, often recording one or two flop singles for small labels, creating a stream of records that would, in their number and rarity, fuel the first stirrings of serious rock record collecting in the late nineteen-seventies, but leave behind a relatively paltry legacy of great music. Exceptions can be found in the Teenagers’ ebullient “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” and the Flamingos’ lovely “I Only Have Eyes for You”, among others. They would also inspire the early sixties girl-groups, legendary megalomaniacal producer Phil Spector, and the Beach Boys.

In the melting pot of Top Forty radio of the late fifties we find, along with soul, blues, and doo-wop a great number of “novelty” records – a catch-all term used to describe comedy, parody, and instrumental hits. The majority of these – the Chipmunks, Sheb Wooley, the “break-in” records of Dickie Goodman (in which a simulated news report would include questions “answered” by excerpts from hit songs) – do not particularly hold up to repeated or contemporary listening. Occasionally, however, the sheer force of joyful absurdity, reminiscent at times of the spirit of Dixieland jazz or early blues and country, overcomes any questions of taste or topicality, as in the case of Ray Stevens’s “Ahab the Arab”, a bizarre distillation of pseudo-Lord Buckley hipster patois and comic book orientalism, or the Champs’ deathless “Tequila” or any of the comic-tragic playlets of the Coasters.

By the early sixties, rock and roll, which Charlie Gillette identified as five separate genres, consisted of easily double that number of recognizable stylistic variants, all of which the Great Voices of Marketing would eventually (as early as 1960) lump together as “Golden Oldies.” Without a single rallying point, with Elvis in the Army, Chuck Berry in jail, Buddy Holly dead, and Little Richard off saving souls, the previous media portrayals of rock and roll as a serious threat to culture had largely dissipated, and pop music seemed to return to business as usual. The notion of “rock and roll” writ large as cultural force had been replaced by the notion of “the single” as the greatest expression of individual freedom, as Pete Townshend would later claim, or, at least, as one of the most reliable profit making entertainment-based disposable goods. Sources vary.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Volume Five: Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On - Honky-Tonk, Rockabilly, Rhythm and Blues

92. Hank Williams: Ramblin’ Man
(Hank Williams) 1951

93. Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys: Blue Moon of Kentucky
(Bill Monroe) 1947

94. Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys: Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms
(Charlie Monroe) 1951

95. Red Foley: Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy
(Harry Stone-Jack Stapp) 1950

96. Kitty Wells: It Wasn’t Got That Made Honky Tonk Angels
(J. D. Miller) 1952

97. Lonnie Donegan: Rock Island Line
(Huddie Ledbetter) 1954

98. Tennessee Ernie Ford: Sixteen Tons
(Merle Travis) 1955

99. Roy Hall: Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On
(Dave Williams-Sunny David) 1954

100. Bill Haley and his Comets: (We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock
(Jimmy DeKnight-Max Freedman) 1954

101. Elvis Presley: Reconsider Baby
(Lowell Fulsom) 1960

102. Buddy Holly: Rave On
(Sonny West-Bill Tilghman-Norman Petty) 1958

103. Chuck Berry: Sweet Little Sixteen
(Chuck Berry) 1958

104. Bo Diddley: Hey! Bo Diddley
(Ellas McDaniel) 1957

105. The Johnny Burnette Trio: Honey Hush
(Big Joe Turner) 1956

106. The Johnny Otis Show: Willie and the Hand Jive
(Johnny Otis) 1958

107. Carl Perkins: Blue Suede Shoes
(Carl Perkins) 1955

108. Jerry Lee Lewis: High School Confidential
(Jerry Lee Lewis-Ron Hargrave) 1958

109. Little Richard: Tutti Frutti
(Richard Penniman-Dorothy LaBostrie) 1955

110. Paul Peek, featuring Esquerita: Sweet Skinny Jenny
(Paul Peek) 1958

111. Larry Williams: Bony Moronie
(Larry Williams) 1957

112. Hasil Adkins: Chicken Walk
(Hasil Adkins) 1962

113. Eddie Cochran: Summertime Blues
(Eddie Cochran-Jerry Capehart) 1958

114. Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps: Be-Bop-a-Lula
(Gene Vincent-Donald Graves-Bill Davis) 1956

115. Screamin' Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on You
(Screamin' Jay Hawkins) 1956

116. Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks: Southern Love
(Ronnie Hawkins-Jacqueline Magill-Levon Helm) 1960

117. Ruth Brown: Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean
(Johnny Wallace-Herbert J. Lance) 1953

118. Chuck Willis: C.C. Rider
(Traditional, Arr. Chuck Willis) 1957

119. Lloyd Price: Stagger Lee
(Traditional-Harold Logan-Lloyd Price) 1959

120. Fats Domino: Blue Monday
(Fats Domino-Dave Bartholomew) 1956

121. Clarence 'Frogman' Henry: Ain’t Got No Home
(Clarence "Frogman" Henry) 1956


“Rock 'n' roll smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written, for the most part, by cretinous goons. And, by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration, and sly, lewd and in plain fact, dirty lyrics ... it manages to be the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth.”

--- Frank Sinatra

The music of the nineteen fifties looms large in our popular imagination: the clips of Elvis on camera and his pelvis slightly off camera and Buddy Holly and the Crickets bounding through “Peggy Sue” on that slightly distorted Ed Sullivan kinescope, the candied silliness of American Graffiti and original Happy Days jukebox playing “Rock Around the Clock.” The effect of such pop-cultural oversaturation has been to launch fifties rock and roll into the no man’s land of free-floating-signifiers, memories of a past constructed by film and television, divorced from their original cultural significance. That is to say: to contemporary ears, it’s often difficult to hear what’s so great about Elvis.

The crossovers taking place in post-war popular music, between rhythm and blues, gospel, country, and swing, and the pop charts gave birth, so the story goes, inevitably, to rock and roll. The hegemonic narrative of “rock” has so permeated our contemporary understanding of popular music and, particularly, of rock’s relationship to American identity, that it becomes, after a certain point, difficult to separate “rock” from “popular music.” Indeed, during my mis-spent youth of the eighties, I’m not sure I (and millions like me) could have adequately separated the two. From this point on, rock becomes the focal point of popular music and we follow the ways in which it became that focal point.

Along with the increasing popularity of black musics, especially rhythm and blues, one of the key factors in that development was the splintering, commercialization, and general “toughening-up” of country and western music. Hank Williams became a model of self-contained singer-songwriter-guitarist, who scored country chart hits that became, when slightly urbanized by producers such as Mitch Miller, pop hits for Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Jo Stafford, and other pop singers in the early fifties. His influence both as songwriter and as ur-rock cultural icon (living recklessly, dying young, balancing the spiritual and the carnal) is still pervasive; indeed, it is somewhat difficult to imagine Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, much less entire schools of country music, without him.

The toughened-up jukebox country music termed ‘honky tonk’ of Williams, Kitty Wells, and Red Foley provided a nice counter-part to the rapidly developing form of bluegrass. Bluegrass, as practiced by Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs was more rural, more communal, and more focused on instrumental virtuosity than honky tonk. And, like honky tonk, proved invaluable as an influence on what became rock and roll: lengthy, showboating solos, and double-time instrumental passages between vocal passages would eventually become a major feature of big-time rock and roll. When Dolly Parton, in 2002, recorded a bluegrass version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, she underlined this connection that too few performers or listeners make.

While r&b and country were becoming increasingly popular (and those genre’s biggest hits were being covered by more sedate, more white performers on the pop charts), the tradition of jazz singing and the Great American Songbook were suffering on the pop charts. Without demonizing Mitch (“Sing Along with Mitch”) Miller too much, it should be noted that Miller, as producer and A&R man, aggressively encouraged his roster at Columbia Records to record repetitive, simplistic, and, often soulless, novelty records in pursuit of the pop charts. Sinatra recorded, under duress, “Mama Will Bark”, a duet (trio?) with Scandinavian actress Dagmar and a barking dog, and superlative jazz interpreter Rosemary Clooney recorded playwright William Saroyan and Ross (The Chipmunks) Bagdasarian’s “Come-on-a-My House”, a pop hit she despised. The gradual dumbing down of the American pop charts with novelties and watered-down versions of rhythm-and-blues and country records drew attention to the growing gulf between the worlds of pop and the semi-popular created by swing’s mutation into bop.

From this void comes the popular explosion of rock and roll. Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 1955 “Sixteen Tons” anticipated this explosion, with its catchy blues-based melody and crisp production, while Scottish Lonnie Donegan’s fusion of traditional jazz and Lead Belly-inspired folk on his cover of the latter’s “Rock Island Line” inspired the Beatles and their (English) generation to start playing rhythmic folk music.

Despite its continued overusage to signify the nineteen fifties, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” still sounds startlingly modern and exciting while less-well-remembered tracks like Roy Hall’s original version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” (later, of course, covered by Jerry Lee Lewis) and Johnny Burnette’s cataclysmic “Honey Hush” anticipated the loud and loose rock of the Yardbirds, the Kinks, and the Animals ten years later. Elvis Presley, still recognizable to nearly all Americans more than thirty years after his death by the two syllables Evv-Iss was, in addition to an overexposed icon, an affecting blues singer (as heard on “Reconsider Baby”, backed by an all-star Nashville band including Hank Garland, Boots Randolph, and Floyd Cramer).

What is perhaps most striking about the major figures of the early period of rock and roll is their eccentricity; the press of the time perceived many of them as actually dangerous and much of the scholarship written about the era suggests that this fear is rooted in racism, trepidation at the undeniably black influences of the music. Racism certainly played some part in this trepidation, but it could be argued that a fear of the “Old Weird America” was also in play. In an era in which the Weavers became subject to blacklisting following the McCarthy witchhunts, the socialist and progressive histories of folk music, and the self-identification of r&b and country as the music of the rural, the uneducated, and the disenfranchised (both black and white), it’s not difficult to see how Elvis’s blatant sexuality, Jerry Lee Lewis’s piano bashing, Chuck Berry’s exuberant celebrations of teenage nirvana, and Little Richard’s cross-racial-cross-sexual musical calls-to-arms would be seen as unnerving and, perhaps, threatening. This is not even to address more marginal figures like Esquerita, something of a more chaotic, more gender-bending version of Richard, or Hasil Adkins, with his overdriven, frantic odes to chickens and hot dogs, or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, whose stage coffin and snakes predate Alice Cooper by at least fifteen years and Ozzy Osbourne by still more. Uniquely American eccentricities reminiscent of the Harry Smith Anthology, heard in twenties recordings of Blind Willie Johnson and Jimmie Rodgers, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke were making it, sometimes surreptitiously, onto the pop charts. And the guardians of American virtue were actually scared.

The eccentricity and the joyfulness of the music of the period harkens back to the music of the twenties; there is an unpretentious soulfulness to the best of it that prompted a revolution as r&b and country became, when cross-pollinated into rock and roll, the predominant musics of America. Frank Sinatra called the early rock and rollers “goons” and Nat King Cole sang “Mr. Cole Won’t Rock & Roll”, but the proverbial seeds had been proverbially sewn. As the unlamented Danny and the Juniors once said, roughly, “Rock and roll [was] here to stay.”


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Volume Four: This Land Is Your Land – Folk Singers, Country Singers, Gospel, and Blues

67. Woody Guthrie: This Land Is Your Land
(Woody Guthrie) 1944

68. Big Bill Broonzy: Baby, Please Don’t Go
(Big Joe Williams) 1952

69. Cisco Houston: Dark as a Dungeon
(Merle Travis) 1959

70. Josh White: Good Morning Blues
(Traditional, Arr. Josh White) 1956

71. Roy Acuff: Great Speckled Bird
(Guy Smith) 1936

72. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys: San Antonio Rose
(Bob Wills) 1940

73. Al Dexter and his Troopers: Pistol Packin’ Mama
(Al Dexter) 1943

74. The Weavers and Gordon Jenkins: Goodnight Irene
(Traditional-Huddie Ledbetter-John A. Lomax) 1950

75. Mahalia Jackson: Move On Up a Little Higher
(W. Herbert Brewster-Arr. Mahalia Jackson) 1954

76. The Soul Stirrers, featuring Sam Cooke: Jesus Gave Me Water
(Lucie E. Campbell) 1951

77. Al Hibbler: Danny Boy
(Frederick Edward Weatherly) 1950

78. Charles Brown: Merry Christmas, Baby
(Lou Baxter-Johnny Moore) 1956

79. Louis Jordan and his Tympani Five: Choo Choo Ch’Boogie
(Denver Darling-Vaughan Horton-Milt Gabler) 1946

80. Stick McGhee: Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee
(Sticks McGhee-J. Mayo Williams) 1949

81. Professor Longhair and his New Orleans Boys: Mardi Gras in New Orleans
(Roy Byrd) 1949

82. T-Bone Walker: Shufflin' the Blues
(T Bone Walker) 1956

83. Muddy Waters: Rollin’ Stone
(McKinley Morganfield) 1950

84. Howlin' Wolf: Sittin’ on Top of the World
(Chester Burnett) 1957

85. Little Walter: Juke
(Walter Jacobs) 1952

86. Elmore James: Dust My Broom
(Elmore James) 1951

87. Jimmy Reed: I Ain’t Got You
(Clarence Carter) 1960

88. LaVern Baker: Soul on Fire
(LaVern Baker-Ahmet Ertegun-Jerry Wexler) 1953

89. The Clovers: One Mint Julep
(Rudy Toombs) 1951

90. Big Joe Turner: Shake, Rattle and Roll
(Charles E. Calhoun) 1954

91. Big Mama Thornton: Hound Dog
(Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller) 1953


"For me, jazz, R&B, jump swing, Chicago blues, country blues, early hillbilly music, and honky tonk all stem from the same source."

- Duke Robillard

Every ten to fifteen years in the rock era, there is a heavily-promoted and marketed “folk revival” and a new crop of acoustic-guitar wielding confessional or topical songwriters seems to magically appear as a reaction to “commercial” pop music. Similar, although less heavily-promoted, revivals of “old school” rhythm and blues or hip hop or of pre-free jazz or of “classic” country music appear and inevitably prompt the question, “What is being ‘revived’?” and, more importantly, “Why is [insert “authentic” genre] in need of reviving?”

Some answers to these questions lie in the marketing and packaging of the non-swing / non-bop music of the forties and early fifties. As pop records began to, for the first time since the Depression, be a truly big business in the post-war environment that saw the introduction of the long-playing 33 1/3 album and the 45 rpm single, magnetic tape recording, and overdubbing, the recording industry began to change the way it labeled, promoted, and charted “non-pop” records. From this point onward, genre classification, always a point of contention for listeners (cf. the dispute over calling jazz of the teens and twenties “Dixieland” or “Traditional Jazz”), becomes much more difficult as generic lines are crossed and pop records freely mix old and new, black and white influences.

In 1948, Jerry Wexler coined the term rhythm and blues to describe what had previously been marketed and charted as race records. The term “Race records”, which sounds as if it had been imposed by racist record marketers had actually been applied within the black community of the twenties when the term “the race” was used in the black press to suggest and instill black pride. Rhythm and blues replaced the limiting name with a descriptive one, in much the same way that several years earlier, country and western replaced hillbilly as the preferred generic term for rural white music.

While thousands of artists released r&b, blues, gospel, country and western, and folk records, the real money and the real sense of having arrived lay then, as now, with success on the Billboard pop charts, the stepping stone to success in films (and, later, on television), successful gigs at places like Carnegie Hall and the Copacabana, essentially, to success with affluent white audiences. Out of this model came twin notions, on their face opposed in their aims. One was the idea of ‘crossing over’ – moving from rural venues, the Chitlin Circuit, country dances to those larger, whiter concert halls and supper clubs – from the r&b or c&w charts to the pop charts, while the other was the notion of ‘maintaining authenticity’ – playing to smaller, more devoted, more knowledgeable audiences in order to maintain artistic integrity while forsaking big money and fame. This split was readily apparent in the constructed identity of bop musicians, whose music frequently was off-putting to casual listeners, but the oppositional identities constructed by the perception of popular success as either “crossing over” or “selling out” continues to lie at the heart of our perceptions of popular music, and to this notion of revivals and authenticity.

Adding to the constructed notion that pop success is the opposite of “the authentic”, was the availability of archival recordings. Due to the technological innovations of the lp record and of magnetic tape recording (which meant easy duplication and re-release, at low cost, of earlier records), there were, for the first time, available on record “historic” performances. We take for granted the availability, in the digital age, of the entire canon of popular music: Louis Armstrong and Bukka White and Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby are just a click away, but popular music was, before the introduction of the lp, a largely disposable art form. The biggest hits and the best reviewed classical performances would be kept in–print or reissued, but most early jazz, blues, and country records were, by the late forties, rare or impossible to find. Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, released on lp in 1952, contained selections dubbed from Smith’s personal collection of folk, blues, gospel, and country 78s originally issued between 1927 and 1932, and set the standard both for archival reissue of non-classical music and for this idea of an authenticity that has somehow been ‘lost’ and thus can be ‘revived’. The Anthology would become necessary listening for musicians in the folk, blues, and country revivals throughout the rock era, and the idea that it reflected a purer, more real, more authentic vision of America than that found in commercially successful records continues to survive.

Harry Smith’s anthologizing can be seen as an outgrowth of the populist, leftist folk-music of the thirties and forties. With a melody based on the Carter Family’s “Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine” and lyrics written as a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” became the folk music anthem and exemplifies his status as “the father of us all” for countless American folk revivals. Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White, Cisco Houston, and the Weavers were all part of the circle of musicians with whom Guthrie associated. Socially-conscious and politically-oriented, they advanced the notion of folk (and blues) as “true” representations of American identity. Broonzy, who began recording in the twenties and performed at the legendary Spirituals to Swing Concert in 1939 (in the late Robert Johnson’s stead) was perhaps the first blues performer to be “rediscovered” by white urban artists. The Weavers were certainly the first folkies to crossover to huge popular success, with their cover of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene”. Omitting some of the more inflammatory lyrics (the line about morphine is gone) and softened by the strings and chorus of sometime-Sinatra-arranger Gordon Jenkins, “Goodnight Irene” became a #1 pop hit in 1950, billed initially to “Gordon Jenkins and his Orchestra with the Weavers” – surely a testament to the wary relationship between the pop record business and the Greenwich Village lefty folk scene.

While folk music was being ever-so-carefully packaged, country music was undergoing its own reinvention. Roy Acuff’s 1935 recording of the country gospel song “The Great Speckled Bird” could easily be labeled “folk” or “gospel”, but it was marketed as “hillbilly”. What became known in the mid-forties as “country and western”, was already a blurring of several genres as Al Dexter and Bob Wills injected swing elements (particulary horns) into bluegrass-derived chord progressions. An even more startling reinvention, though, was happening in the gospel genre (itself largely, then and now, a separate world from popular musics). Sam Cooke, as lead singer of The Soul Stirrers, and Mahalia Jackson, who would be signed to the industry giant Columbia Records in 1954, were producing rhythm and blues records in all but name: soulful singing over insistent blues-derived beats. Cooke would crossover singing pop songs; Jackson selling gospel records to non-gospel listeners, together paving the way for Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, and generations of gospel singers to make the transition to secular audiences.

This intensely transitional period also saw the perfecting of several other styles that strongly influenced what would become known as rock and roll. The fathers of Electric or Chicago blues, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf – remain pervasive influences in blues-based rock (and the hard rock that grew out of it). By fusing loud electric guitar riffs, amplified harmonica, and a rhythm section of drums and elecric bass, with or without piano, they effectively invented the classic rock line-up. Elmore James and T-Bone Walker (as well as B.B. King and Buddy Guy) perfected the blues guitar-hero model, and the independent label Atlantic Records helped to foster a union of Louis Jordan-inspired jump blues (itself a fusion of blues and swing, heavily influenced by Cab Calloway), Chicago-styled blues, and gospel into a pop-directed r&b of the sort performed by LaVern Baker, Stick McGhee, and the Clovers. The desire to cross over to pop success and ready availability of countless pop, jazz, folk, r&b, c&w, and gospel records leads to a level of cross-pollination of styles unknown to American popular music thus far. And, of course, this leads to the birth of rock and roll.