Monday, February 2, 2015

Bix Beiderbecke: The First Great White Jazzman

Bix Beiderbecke, born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1903, is generally regarded as the greatest white jazz cornettist of all time. His playing was soft and lyrical, unlike the “hot” playing of contemporaries such as Louis Armstrong. His tragic death from the effects of alcoholism at the age of 28 would see him become the archetype of the self-destructive jazz genius. That archetype would be seen in the coming decades with the early demises of jazz greats such as Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and others.

Beiderbecke started playing cornet in his teens. At this early point in the development of jazz, the trumpet, now so ubiquitous in jazz, was rarely used. Early horn players were generally cornetists or trombonists.

As Beiderbecke’s hometown of Davenport was situated on the banks of the Mississippi River, young Bix was afforded the opportunity to witness paddlesteamers pulling into Davenport as they headed north up the Mississippi from New Orleans. Often these riverboats featured jazz bands playing on the decks. These bands virtually poured out their music from the decks and could be heard far ashore.

On one occasion, Beiderbecke was within earshot of the arrival of a riverboat which featured Fate Marable’s band and its young, brilliant cornetist, Louis Armstrong. Armstrong was still just a local New Orleans legend at this time. Hearing Armstrong’s playing aboard that riverboat filled Beiderbecke with awe and inspiration, and he dedicated himself to the mastery of his instrument as a result.

After a short stay in college, Beiderbecke, now in Chicago, joined a band called “The Wolverines” with which he made his first recording, in 1924. He then moved on to the Jean Goldkette Orchestra for a short stint. Shortly thereafter, he met his future collaborator, saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, and joined his band. In 1926, Trumbauer and Beiderbecke would both join the Goldkette band. It was in 1927, with the Frankie Trumbauer band, that Bix would record his classics, “Ostrich Walk,” “Riverboat Shuffle,” “Clarinet Marmalade,” and “Singing the Blues.”

Following his stints with Goldkette and Trumbauer, Beiderbecke moved onto the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. The pressure of the constant touring and recording with Whiteman and his worsening alcoholism culminated in Beiderbecke’s death at age 28 in his New York City apartment.

In addition to being a superb cornetist, Beiderbecke was also a talented pianist and recorded solo piano pieces such as the terrific, “In a Mist.”

Among many fine compilations of Beiderbecke’s music are “Bix Beiderbecke Vol 1-Singing the Blues” (1990), Bix Beiderbecke Vol. 2-At the Jazz Band Ball” (1990), and “Riverboat Shuffle: Original 1924-1929 Recordings” (2001).

Friday, January 30, 2015

Frankie Trumbauer: King of the C-Melody Sax

Frankie Trumbauer, born in Carbondale, Illinois, in 1901, is one of the first great jazz saxophonists. He became famous as a player of the rare C-melody saxophone, an instrument with a pitch that falls between an alto and tenor saxophone. Trumbauer was a saxophonist of considerable influence who is credited by many later greats of the instrument as an inspiration. Trumbauer was often referred to by the moniker, “Tram.” 

Trumbauer began his career with the Paul Whiteman Band in the early twenties. When he switched to the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, he met the great cornetist Bix Beiderbecke with whom he would later become a close friend and collaborator.

In 1927, Trumbauer formed his own orchestra and with Beiderbecke, Eddie Lang and Jimmy Dorsey produced some of the best jazz ever recorded. In a series of legendary sessions, the Frankie Trumbauer Orchestra would record, “Singing the Blues,” “Clarinet Marmalade,” “For No Reason at all in C,” “Riverboat Shuffle,” Ostrich Walk,” and others. Bix Beiderbecke’s work on these recordings is considered to be his best ever work. On the brilliant side, “Trumbology,” Trumbauer delivers one of the first true saxophone tour de forces in recorded jazz. Trumbauer died in 1956.

Trumbauer’s recordings can be found on the “Chronological Classics” series of jazz compilations and his recordings with Beiderbecke were considered good enough to warrant inclusion on the venerable collection of early jazz recordings, “The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz” (1973).

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Jelly Roll Morton: The "Inventor" of Jazz

Jelly Roll Morton is among the most important figures in the history of American popular music. He was a pianist, composer, and bandleader and one of the first musicians to play jazz music. Morton was a tireless self-promoter who actually claimed to have “invented” jazz and carried business cards that made such a claim. Of course, no individual can take credit for having invented jazz, but we do know that Morton was the first person to write it down. He was also one of the prominent musicians who bridged the gap between the ragtime music that preceded jazz and the music that jazz would become.

Morton was born Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1890. Morton was a Creole who was of mixed African and Spanish heritage. Creole musicians were among the finest of the musicians in New Orleans due to the classical training that many received.

Morton began his professional career as a teenager in the notorious red light district of Storyville, in New Orleans. He told his grandmother with whom he lived, that he was working as a night watchman when he was really working as a piano player in Storyville clubs. When his grandmother discovered the truth, Morton was ejected from his home, and he began his career in earnest at age 17, traveling around the country while working as an itinerant pianist, gambler, pimp, and door to door salesman.

Morton made his first recordings, “Mr. Jelly Lord” and “Clarinet Marmalade,” with a white jazz band, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, in 1923. Later that year, after moving to Chicago, he made his first solo recordings for the Gennett label, recording very influential piano solo sides such as “Wolverine Blues” and “Tom Cat Blues.”

Morton would achieve the height of his success as the leader of the legendary recording band, The Red Hot Peppers, which recorded with Morton for the Victor label from 1926-1927. The band consisted of many ex-members of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. The Red Hot Peppers were: Johnny St. Cyr on banjo; Omer Simeon on clarinet; Kid Ory on trombone; Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Barney Bigard on clarinet George Mitchell on cornet; and Baby Dodds on drums.

Morton and the Peppers recorded some of the most original and inspired numbers in the history of jazz including, “The Chant,” “Dead Man Blues,” “Dr. Jazz,” “Smoke House Blues,” “Sidewalk Blues,” and “Black Bottom Stomp”. All these selections were performed in the New Orleans style with numerous influences brought in from various sources.

On these sides, the band displayed the improvisational flair of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, and it swung even harder. The Red Hot Pepper recordings would become some of the best-selling recordings of the day, and Morton achieved a level of financial success that allowed him to have a diamond stud fixed in his teeth. Unfortunately, Morton’s good times did not last for long as his style of jazz soon fell out of fashion.

The Great Depression and the advent of swing music had a devastating effect on Morton, and he was forced to hock his diamond and resorted to playing piano in a lowbrow bar in Washington, D.C. In 1938, Alan Lomax recorded a series of interviews and performances of Morton for the Library of Congress. Morton’s health was declining fast, and he died in 1941. Morton had blamed his declining health on a voodoo curse.

 Morton’s greatest recordings are the sides he recorded with the Red Hot Peppers, and these are available in various compilations, as is the rest of his work. The best of these compilations is probably “The Jelly Roll Morton Centennial: His Complete Victor Recordings” (1990) “The Complete Library of Congress Recordings” (2005) is also available and it serves as a fabulous document of early jazz lore.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

James Brown: Soul Brother Number One

James Brown, born in Macon, Georgia, in 1938 was known by a number of titles including “The Godfather of Soul,” “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” “Soul Brother Number One,” and “Mr. Dynamite.” Brown is considered one of the most influential figures in the history of American popular music. In addition to being a major figure in the creation of funk music, Brown was a businessman and an inspirational leader in the American civil rights movement.

A number of musicians spent time in his back-up bands before finding success as solo artists including, Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker, and Hank Ballard. Brown is frequently cited as an influence by hip hop artists, and he may be the single most sampled artist by hip hop producers.

James Brown was born in Barnwell, North Carolina, in 1933. He was born into abject poverty and was sent to live with an aunt. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade and began working odd jobs such as shoe shining and singing for the World War Two troops that were stationed at Camp Gordon near his aunt’s home. During this time, Brown taught himself to play the harmonica and received guitar lessons from the legendary bluesman, Tampa Red.

When he saw a film of the great jump blues master Louis Jordan performing his hit, “Caledonia,” Brown resolved to pursue a professional music career. However, when he was sixteen, Brown was charged with armed robbery and sent to a juvenile detention center. While serving a three-year sentence in a detention center, Brown became acquainted with Bobby Byrd, a future R&B star whose family arranged for Brown’s release from the center. After stints as a semi-professional baseball player and boxer, Brown focused his attention back on music.

In 1955, Brown joined his friend Bobby Bird as a member of Byrd’s singing group, the Avons. With Brown now a member, the Avons changed their name to the Flames and signed to Federal Records. Brown’s first recording, “Please. Please, Please” would come as a member of the Flames and present him as a soul singer of great depth and intensity.

Brown would record several more singles with the Flames during the Fifties, and the group would eventually become known as “James Brown and the Famous Flames.” Among thier big hits were the songs, “I’ll Go Crazy,” “Think,” “Lost Someone,” “Night Train,” and “Caledonia.” In 1965, Brown, in the opinion of many, would invent funk music with his hit, “Papa’s got a Brand New Bag.” For its recording, Brown told his band to “play it on the one,” transforming the traditional 2/4 beat heard in R&B recordings and giving the world something new.

Brown continued recording hit singles and albums consistently until the Nineties. Among Brown’s later hits were the songs, “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” “Licking Stick,” “Say it Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud,” “Cold Sweat,” “Sex Machine,” and “Living in America.”

Brown died on Christmas Day, 2006, leaving behind him an awesome catalogue of recorded work.

Among Brown’s best studio albums and compilations are: “Please Please Please” (1956), “Live at the Apollo” (1963), “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” (1965), “I Got You (I Feel Good)” (1966), “James Brown Live at the Garden” (1967), “I Can’t Stand Myself When You Touch Me” (1968), “Say it Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1969), “Sex Machine”(1970), “Revolution of the Mind” (1971), “The Payback” (1974), “Love Power Peace, Live at the Olympia, Paris1971” (1992), “James Brown Soul Classics” (1972), “Solid Gold 30 Golden Hits” (1977), “In the Jungle Groove” (1986), “Star Time” (1991), and “Gold” (2005)

Friday, January 23, 2015

Charlie Poole: North Carolina Rambler

Charlie Poole was one of a handful of individuals recording country music in the days before The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers made the music popular in the late Twenties. Poole and his band, “The North Carolina Ramblers,” were one of the most popular and prolific of the “hillbilly” bands to record in the mid-Twenties. Traditional country was rich and colorful, and Poole was one of the best from its early days.

Poole was born in Eden, North Carolina, in 1892. He was a banjo player, and he and his band, the North Carolina Ramblers, made their first recording, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.” in 1925. Poole wrote songs that reflected the harsh realities of life for the southern poor and his own struggles with alcoholism, a disease which would eventually kill him.

Songs such as “Can I Sleep in your Barn Tonight Mister,” “Take a Drink on Me,” and “All Go Hungry Hash House” paint vivid pictures of that life. Poole even dabbled in the political arena with his classic, “White House Blues.”

Several compilations exist with these songs and many more.
Charlie Poole (left) and the North Carolina Ramblers