THE DOZENS: HARLEM by Ted Gioia



                                Harlem at Night, photo by Marcel Fleiss

Jazz sprang from the damp soil of New Orleans, came of age in Chicago, but finally realized its loftiest ambitions in Harlem. Here Scott Joplin staged the first —and only—performance of his opera Treemonisha, at the Lincoln Theater in 1915. Here Harlem stride legend James P. Johnson dreamed of a symphonic jazz that synthesized all shades of American music. Here Duke Ellington first made his mark, using the tainted luster of the Cotton Club as a springboard for a career that reached the highest pitch of artistry.

But Harlem also was home to the rent party music of Fats Waller, the flamboyance of Cab Calloway, the exuberance of the dancers at the Savoy Ballroom, and the legend-making performances at the Apollo Theater. Some of the figures below you will recognize, others may be names that are new to you or only dimly remembered. But all contributed to the rich musical heritage of Harlem.


James P. Johnson: Carolina Shout

Track

Carolina Shout

Artist

CD

Snowy Morning Blues (Decca GRD-604)

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Musicians:

James P. Johnson (piano),

Eddie Dougherty (drums)

.

Composed by James P. Johnson

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Recorded: New York, August 15, 1944

Albumcoverjpjohnsonsnowy

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

"Carolina Shout" is James P. Johnson's most famous composition, and mastering it was a major rite of passage for aspiring Harlem stride piano players. But no one played it better than Johnson himself, as demonstrated by this outstanding 1944 recording. Stride piano was long out of fashion by the time of this session, replaced by the more streamlined rhythms of Kansas City, the jitterbugging sounds of the Swing Era and the nascent pulse of bebop. But James P. Johnson paid little attention to these passing fads, and asserts his own powerful musical vision. Hear the granddaddy of all jazz keyboardists at top form, the man and the song that influenced everyone from Ellington to Monk. A classic of American pianism.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Duke Ellington: Black and Tan Fantasy (OKeh)

Track

Black and Tan Fantasy (OKeh version)

Group

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra

CD

The OKeh Ellington (Columbia 46177)

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Musicians:

Duke Ellington (piano), Jabbo Smith (trumpet), Louis Metcalf (trumpet), Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton (trombone), Harry Carney (reeds), Rudy Jackson (reeds), Otto Hardwick (reeds), Fred Guy (banjo), Wellman Braud (bass), Sonny Greer (drums).

Composed by Bubber Miley

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Recorded: New York, November 3, 1927

Albumcoverokellington

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Ellington's growing musical maturity from the 1920s through the 1940s is one of the most remarkable stories in the history of jazz. At the time of "Black and Tan Fantasy," Duke was still in the early stages of this unprecedented evolution, but already we see his ability to craft a distinctive musical mood, to tell a story through the medium of his band. Here he presents a late-night dreamscape, both menacing and alluring, one that must have drawn many patrons back to the Cotton Club, where Duke had recently started his four-year stint leading the house band. Trumpeter Bubber Miley helped craft this memorable piece, both as composer and through his solo efforts. But on this date, 18-year-old Jabbo Smith -- a near-legend of 1920s jazz -- subs for Miley, and handles the trumpet chores with aplomb. One wonders what Smith might have accomplished had he accepted Ellington's offer to join the Cotton Club band. Duke completists will want to compare this track with the Brunswick and Victor versions, each featuring Miley.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Charlie Johnson's Paradise Ten: Harlem Drag

Track

Harlem Drag

Group

Charlie Johnson's Paradise Ten

CD

Charlie Johnson: The Complete Sessions (EPM Musique)

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Musicians:

Charlie Johnson (piano), Sidney De Paris (trumpet), Edgar Sampson (alto sax),

Leonard Davis (trumpet), George Stevenson (trombone), Ben Whitted (reeds), Bobby Johnson (banjo), Billy Taylor, Sr. (tuba), George Stafford (drums)

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Composed by Benny Waters

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Recorded: New York, May 8, 1929

Albumcovercharliejohnsoncomplete

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

From the middle of the Jazz Age to the depths of the Depression, Charlie Johnson's band graced the stage at Small's Paradise Club in Harlem. Only a handful of stalwart fans remember this band nowadays, but along with Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, Johnson was a pioneer in forging the big band sound that would eventually transform American popular music. Few jazz bands from the 1920s had a more modern conception of swinging section work, and though Johnson himself was not a scintillating soloist, he always had hot players in the band (such as Jabbo Smith and Benny Carter) ready to take a chorus. In this instance, Sidney De Paris does the honors, dishing up some of the rough-and-tumble trumpet work that must have put spring in the dancers' steps . . . and also served notice that Bubber Miley wasn't the only master of "jungle style" horn playing in Harlem.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Fats Waller: African Ripples

Track

African Ripples

Artist

Fats Waller (piano)

CD

The Joint is Jumpin' (Bluebird 6288-2-RB)

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Musicians:

Fats Waller (piano).

Recorded: November 16, 1934

Albumcoverfatsjoint

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Fats Waller's combo sides sound like primal party music, recorded at the heat of the festivities, just before the police arrive at the door. But Waller's solo piano music is from another world entirely, with moments of delicacy, and rich with nuances that demand close listening. "African Ripples" ranks among Waller's finest solo outings, a heady mixture of Harlem rent party and concert-hall fare. In just three minutes, Waller explores a range of tempos and moods, closing with a powerful burst of stride piano that leaves us begging for more. A masterpiece of 1930s jazz that deserves to be better known today.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Cab Calloway: Tarzan of Harlem

Track

Tarzan of Harlem

Group

Cab Calloway & His Orchestra

CD

Are You Hep to the Jive? (Legacy / Columbia)

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Musicians:

Cab Calloway (vocals), Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Mario Bauza (trumpet), Doc Cheatham (trumpet), Chu Berry (tenor sax), Danny Barker (guitar), Milt Hinton (bass), Cozy Cole (drums),

Lammar Wright (trumpet), Claude Jones (trombone),Keg Johnson (trombone), De Priest Wheeler (trombone), Chauncey Haughton (reeds), Andrew Brown (reeds), Walter Thomas (reeds), Benny Payne (piano)

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Composed by H. Nemo, I. Mills & L. Fien

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Recorded: New York, October 17, 1939

Albumcovercabcallowayareyouhep

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Who could possibly follow the Ellington band at the Cotton Club? Only Cab Calloway, the heppest cat on the third planet from the sun during the 1930s. In fact, Calloway may be the slickest entertainer the jazz scene has ever known; even serious boppers such as Dizzy Gillespie (who sits in the trumpet section on the track) learned how to handle an audience from the 'Hi De Ho' man. And if white audiences out slumming wanted authentic "jungle music," Calloway would cook up something hot and funny, like "Tarzan of Harlem." Cozy Cole stirs up things on the drums, and Calloway gives out several hollers that put Johnny Weissmuller to shame.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Willie 'The Lion' Smith: Concentratin'

Track

Concentratin'

Artist

CD

Luckey & the Lion: Harlem Piano (Good Time Jazz 10035)

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Musicians:

Willie 'The Lion' Smith (piano).

Composed by Willie “The Lion’ Smith

.

Recorded: New York, March 18, 1958

Albumcoverwilliethelionsmithharlempiano

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

We tend to remember Harlem jazz for its rent parties or 'jungle music' at the Cotton Club. But there was a concert hall side to this music, drawing on classical influences, and aiming to craft a subtle merger between European and African-American currents. We see this in the large-scale compositions of James P. Johnson, Ellington's extended pieces, and in the impressionistic works of stride pianists, such as Waller's "African Ripples," and this offering from Willie 'The Lion' Smith.

Of course, the great William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith - okay, let's just call him 'The Lion' - never got too refined, and this work's concert hall polish may be closer to Zez Confey than Debussy. In any event, the leonine keyboardist puts aside the oom-pah stride bass for the first half of this number, and crafts a pastoral melody with a Celtic tinge. But he can't hold back the hot jazz forever, and in mid-song he shifts into fast and furious Harlem stride, tossing out some unexpected syncopations along the way. The end result is halfway between the Harlem rent party and Carnegie Hall -- sort of a tux and stogie event. And who better to serve as our host for some transgressive entertainment than 'The Lion'?

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Chick Webb: Liza

Track

Liza

Group

Chick Webb & His Orchestra

CD

The Original Decca Recordings: Spinnin' the Webb (Decca)

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Musicians:

Chick Webb (drums), Mario Bauza (trumpet), Bobby Stark (trumpet), Taft Jordan (trumpet),

Nat Story, Sandy Williams, George Matthews (trombone); Gavin Bushell, Louis Jordan, Teddy McRae, Wayman Carver (reeds); Tommy Fulford (piano), Bobby Johnson (guitar), Beverly Peer (bass)

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Composed by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and Gus Kahn

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Recorded: New York, May 3, 1938

Albumcoverchickwebbspinnintheweb

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Jazz fans all know Ella Fitzgerald's hit recording of "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" -- but how many have checked out this version of "Liza" on the flip side of the 78? Yet you would need to look far and wide to find a better exhibition of Swing Era drumming. Webb drives the band with a double dose of what Alan Greenspan might call "irrational exuberance." But you can't resist this beat -- no wonder the dancers stomped so hard at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, where Webb & Co. presided over the spirited proceedings. Listen and enjoy the band that defeated the Benny Goodman ensemble, the most famous jazz group of the age, at a heated Harlem battle a few months before this session. Webb would be dead, at age 30, before the close of the decade, but this track serves notice that he was one of the finest talents the jazz world has produced.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Fats Waller: Your Feet's Too Big

Track

Your Feet's Too Big

Group

Fats Waller & His Rhythm

CD

The Very Best Of Fats Waller (RCA 63731)

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Musicians:

Fats Waller (piano, vocals), Gene Sedric (reeds), Cedric Wallace (bass), Slick Jones (drums),

John Hamilton (trumpet), John Smith (guitar)

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Composed by Ada Benson and Fred Fisher

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Recorded: November 3, 1939

Albumcoververybestoffatswaller

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Here is the Harlem rent party side of Fats Waller. Full-bodied stride piano is mixed in with singing, shtick and comedy, but jazz is the key ingredient, the glue that holds everything together. Waller imitates some heavy, feet's-too-big footsteps for the keyboard intro, and Gene Sedric takes a hot and sweet clarinet solo at the midpoint, but most of this track is Waller's fast and loose delivery of a novelty song transformed into an iconic moment in American music. A taste of New Orleans counterpoint closes the proceedings. Well, it's not really the close, since Waller caps it off with a final bit of monologue: "Your pedal extremities really are obnoxious. One never knows, do one?"

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Jimmie Lunceford: Harlem Shout

Track

Harlem Shout

Group

Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra

CD

The Original Decca Recordings: For Dancers Only (GRP)

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Musicians:

Eddie Tompkins (trumpet), Paul Webster (trumpet), Sy Oliver (trumpet), Elmer Crumbley (trombone), Russell Bowles (trombone), Eddie Durham (trombone), Willie Smith (reeds), Dan Grissom (reeds), Laforet Dent (reeds), Earl Carruthers (reeds),

Joe Thomas (reeds), Edwin Wilcox (piano), Al Norris (guitar), Moses Allen (bass), Jimmy Crawford (drums)

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Conducted by Jimmie Lunceford. Composed by Eddie Durham and Jimmie Lunceford

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Recorded: New York, October 14, 1936

Albumcoverjimmielunceforddeccarecordings

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Jimmie Lunceford is the odd man out in jazz history. This bandleader made no waves with his musicianship—his preferred instrument was the conductor's baton—and he possessed neither the elegance of Ellington nor the hipster hauteur of Calloway. But Lunceford knew how to entertain an audience, and he led one of the finest jazz bands of the 1930s. When Lunceford's ensemble took a booking at the Cotton Club, following in the footsteps of Cab and the Duke, dancers would hardly have missed a beat. "Harlem Shout" demonstrates the core virtues of this orchestra: its swinging riff-based charts, its hot and polished section work, and (another calling card of Lunceford's bands) high-note trumpet theatrics, provided here by Paul Webster. Like a hearty band of soldiers, this ensemble always maintained discipline under fire, and there was inevitably plenty of hot stuff around when folks like Sy Oliver and Eddie Durham were handing out the parts. Perhaps if Lunceford had lived longer—he died, reportedly of a heart attack (although under suspicious circumstances), at age 45—he might have been fêted as elder statesman of jazz. But, as it stands, he is little more than a half-remembered name for most younger jazz fans. Tis pity, 'cause this band was sublime.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Duke Ellington: Harlem Air Shaft

Track

Harlem Air Shaft

Group

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra

CD

Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (RCA Bluebird)

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Musicians:

Duke Ellington (piano), Wallace Jones (trumpet), Cootie Williams (trumpet), Rex Stewart (cornet), Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton (trombone), Lawrence Brown (trombone), Juan Tizol (trombone), Barney Bigard (clarinet), Johnny Hodges (alto sax), Harry Carney (baritone sax), Otto Hardwick (alto sax), Ben Webster (tenor sax), Fred Guy (guitar), Jimmy Blanton (bass), Sonny Greer (drums).

Composed by Duke Ellington

.

Recorded: New York, July 22, 1940

Albumcoverdukeellingtonnevernolament

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

This composition may not be as well known as "Satin Doll" or "Mood Indigo," but make no mistake about it: this is one of Ellington's finest moments on record and a landmark of jazz writing. Duke never had a better band than this historic unit, and he contributes a brilliant chart, full of surprising twists and turns. The repeated fake-out shift into half time, jarred back into hot swing by Greer's drumming, still gets me jazzed every time I hear it. And the soloists play with fire -- yet how could they not with such great writing and playing behind them.

Ellington has described the inspiration for this work in vivid terms. "You get the full essence of Harlem in an air shaft," he explained. "You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great loudspeaker, you hear people praying, fighting and snoring." To convey this diversity of activities in sound, Ellington has expanded his palette and opened up his structure beyond the typical confines of 32-bar song form. And for a brief moment in American history, an art song with this type of intricacy could also be a commercial recording for a popular band. We may never see the like again.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Lucky Millinder: When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)

Track

When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)

Group

Lucky Millinder & His Orchestra

CD

Lucky Millinder: Jukebox Hits 1942-1951 (Acrobat Music)

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Musicians:

Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Tab Smith (alto sax), Panama Francis (drums), Bill Doggett (piano),

William ‘Chieftie’ Scott (trumpet), Nelson Bryant (trumpet), George Stevenson (trombone), Joe Britton (trombone), Billy Bowen (alto sax), Stafford ‘Pazzuza’ Simon (tenor sax), Ernest Puce (tenor sax), Trevor Bacon (guitar, vocal), Nick Fenton (bass)

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Directed by Lucky Millinder. Composed by Eddie Seller, Sol Marcus, and Bennie Benjamin

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Recorded: New York, July 29, 1942

Albumcoverluckymillinderjukeboxhits

Rating: 86/100 (learn more)

Harlem bandleader Lucky Millinder had a big hit with this World War II ballad, which reached #1 on the R&B charts and #14 on the pop charts in 1942. This was a love song with a patriotic twist: the lights mentioned in the title would "go on again (all over the world)" when the war-imposed blackouts of potential bombing targets were no longer necessary. Millinder was a "crossover" act before the term even existed, mixing rhythm-and-blues and other commercial elements into his music. Yet his band, which had residencies at the Savoy and later the Apollo, was a breeding ground for modern jazz talent, and featured at various times Dizzy Gillespie (who appears on this track), Thelonious Monk, Sir Charles Thompson and Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis. Millinder, for his part, could neither read music nor play an instrument. This performance goes easy on the jazz, but provides insights into other currents active in 1940s Harlem musical life.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Duke Ellington: A Tone Parallel To Harlem

Track

A Tone Parallel To Harlem (The Harlem Suite)

Artist

Duke Ellington (piano)

CD

Ellington Uptown (Sony Jazz 5129172)

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Musicians:

Duke Ellington (piano), Harold 'Shorty' Baker (trumpet), Willie Cook (trumpet), Ray Nance (trumpet), Clark Terry (trumpet), Juan Tizol (trombone), Britt Woodman (trombone), Jimmy Hamilton (clarinet, tenor sax), Willie Smith (alto sax), Russell Procope (alto sax, clarinet), Paul Gonsalves (tenor sax), Harry Carney (baritone sax), Billy Strayhorn (piano), Wendell Marshall (bass), Louie Bellson (drums),

Francis Williams (trumpet), Quentin Jackson (trombone)

.

Composed by Duke Ellington

.

Recorded: New York, December 7, 1951

Albumcoverdukeellington-ellingtonuptown

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Many fans back in the early 1950s thought that the arrival of the LP -- youngsters, that stands for "Long Playing" record -- would inspire jazz musicians to tackle extended works. No longer subject to the time limitations of a 78-rpm disk, the great minds of jazz would compose symphonies and suites, concertos and chamber works. Well, not quite. But Duke Ellington was certainly inspired by his newfound freedom, especially on his 14-minute A Tone Parallel To Harlem (The Harlem Suite). At age 52, Ellington was still at the peak of his abilities, and the bittersweet melody (entering at the nine-minute mark) that closes the piece is one of his finest. For my money, this composition and Duke's long and revamped version of "Mood Indigo" (from the Masterpieces LP) rank as his finest extended works of the decade.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia



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