King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: Chimes Blues (alternate review)

Everything about this track screams 1923. Cornets instead of trumpets, clarinet not saxophone, banjo not guitar, woodblock in lieu of drums. Even instruments that might sound modern—trombone and piano—are dated by Dutrey's corny glissading and Lil's 2-beat backing. And the audio is, to put it politely, primitive. So what makes this track a landmark? How about because it contains Louis Armstrong's first recorded solo! At this point, Chicago Jazz was still very much a New Orleans import. But thanks to Louis, the music was transiting from ensemble to individual, something "Chimes Blues" captures in mid-commute. A fascinating, irreplaceable piece of history.

March 24, 2009 · 0 comments


King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: Chimes Blues

This medium-tempo piece sounds like a jazz band playing around a china vase. It follows a winding garden path through two straight ensemble blues choruses, then four more (two of them stop-time) around Lil Hardin's chamberesque piano, until it finds the main attraction: Louis Armstrong's first ever recorded solo.

Hardin, the only non-New Orleanian in the group, had received classical training. She could sound more "legit" than the other band members, who had come up "ragging" the music. But it is Armstrong who saves the day—opening the door to the china shop like a bull that just happened by. The beauty of the Oliver band—and many of the Crescent City bands—was that it could play arranged passages as though they were improvising. Armstrong walks away with the cake, swinging like nobody ever had. When you heard Louis on "Chimes Blues," Gary Giddins has commented, "You heard the future."

Although the piece fails to stand as one of Oliver's great compositions, it brings out his bluesy concept. Five years later, he reconceived it as "Mournful Serenade," which Jelly Roll Morton recorded to great effect.

March 24, 2009 · 0 comments


King Oliver: Canal Street Blues (alternate review)

The first strain of this original blues by Joe Oliver has often been misinterpreted due to poor reissues of the original recording: What sounds like one cornet playing fully throughout each measure is actually a call and response by two cornets. The second strain (3rd chorus) is based on the famous 19th-century sacred song “The Holy City.” But what is really important here is the unity with which this ensemble performs and their collective lilt, swing and conviction. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fifth chorus where the ensemble sails into a most deliberate and compelling riff – one that presages the swing bands of the 1930s. Following two solo choruses by Johnny Dodds (accompanied by the “walking bass” of Bill Johnson’s 6-string banjo) the band reiterates the previous riff for two joyous choruses. The anachronistic two-bar coda, built on the augmented 5th of the key, is perhaps the only reminder that this was recorded in 1923.

March 24, 2009 · 0 comments


King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: Canal Street Blues

Having left New Orleans in 1918, King Oliver played mostly around Chicago—with a year in California—for four years. Then in 1923, after he had brought Louis Armstrong up from New Orleans, he took his Creole Band into an April 5 wax-cylinder recording session at Gennett Studios in Richmond, Indiana. They played into a big horn, and the engineer mixed the sound by moving the players closer to or farther from the horn. After nine months of these sessions, the band had produced some 37 sides—the first significant recorded body of black New Orleans jazz. It would change the shape of American music.

"Canal Street Blues," from the April 5 session, is the parade song of your dreams. In New Orleans, the parade beat drives the music: real parades, where uniformed men carrying horns would march in the heat for six to eight hours, standing up, swinging, big second lines trailing.

In this, the classic New Orleans jazz ensemble, the Creole Band drives through the heat and plays with fire streaming off their backsides. The piano-banjo-drum rhythm section, with the future Mrs. Louis Armstrong on keys, beats as if they're driving a herd—and there was one, on the dance floor. The simple, 3-note motif conjures a waving flag. Dutrey blows into the music from behind, pushing its resonance. In true New Orleans style, the clarinet takes the big solo. Enter the final ensemble, where Louis tops Oliver's lead with a "perfect" fifth and joins him in a one-bar duet break at the end, with trombone sneaking in on beats 3 and 4. Laissez les bon temps roulez!

March 24, 2009 · 0 comments


Louis Armstrong (featuring Lonnie Johnson): Hotter Than That

Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings are fundamental documents in the history of American music. By emphasizing a featured soloist, rather than the ensemble band music of New Orleans, they served as a foundation for the entire superstructure of jazz to come. For this particular edition, the Hot Fives became in effect the Hot Six, thanks to the inspired addition of virtuoso jazz and blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson.

In "Hotter Than That," Armstrong continues to develop his historic instrumental power and expressiveness. He also revives the scat singing (nonsense syllables delivered in a rhythmic vocal style) that he first put on record in the previous year's "Heebie Jeebies." Here he scats in a marvelous call-&-response dialogue with Johnson's guitar, which sometimes echoes—or saucily mimics—the scat line and sometimes complements or comments on it. As the distinguished music scholar and composer Gunther Schuller says in Early Jazz, "Lonnie Johnson's swinging, rhythmic backing and his remarkable two-bar exchanges with Armstrong are certainly one of the highlights of classic jazz." Special punch and poignancy come when the exchanges culminate in four dramatic stop-time effects, with an Armstrong wail followed by Johnson's perfectly attuned, punctuated guitar response. These two masters brought out the best in each other.

Johnny Dodds also contributes a scintillating clarinet solo, with a fine blues feel, evoking the original New Orleans jazz milieu, as does Kid Ory's classic tailgate trombone.

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Louis Armstrong (featuring Lonnie Johnson): I'm Not Rough

Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings are not just jazz classics, they are among the most important and influential recordings in American music history. They essentially laid the foundations of jazz for the ensuing decades, evolving from the original pure ensemble band music of New Orleans to the use of a featured soloist, in this case the developing ultimate master of jazz and popular music, Louis Armstrong. All the Hot Fives musicians except Lil Hardin Armstrong were from New Orleans, including the special addition of great jazz and blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson for three tracks.

"I'm Not Rough" has a distinctive, powerful and memorable melody and lyrical theme ("I ain't rough and I don't fight / But the woman that's got me got to treat me right / 'Cause I'm crazy 'bout my lovin' …"). The musical lines emphasize the theme of the lyrics; the music soars in perfect accord with those lyrics. With constant swing and momentum, they build musical crescendos that give punch and emotion to the message.

Armstrong's ever-developing instrumental technique punches out accents, dynamically flows through the melodic theme lines, and uses slides, slurs and bent notes to dramatically demonstrate how the blues is a prime foundation of jazz. Lonnie Johnson's playing starts with guitar trills, adding intensity and texture to the music. Then his guitar/voice exchanges both complement and stimulate Armstrong. Johnson's ringing and intense but smoothly flowing guitar solo in the middle adds a new dimension to the Hot Five (here expanded to six). Also standing out from the ensemble work, Johnny Dodds adds some soulful and lyrical clarinet lines.

In my opinion, however, Armstrong's singing on this track was still developing; it is a bit crude, especially compared with the striking, absolute mastery of his vocal work on the 1950s and '60s recordings.

January 08, 2009 · 1 comment


Bix Beiderbecke: There's a Cradle in Caroline

If this song about a homesick Tar Heel lacks sincerity, perhaps it's because the singer was born in Syracuse, New York, and the musicians were Easterners and Midwesterners whose cradles never moseyed within 400 miles of North Carolina. But note the recording date: precisely one week before Al Jolson's burnt-cork "My Mammy" in Hollywood's The Jazz Singer swept America's infatuation with a mythical Dixie to its nadir. Sans blackface, bandleader Sam Lanin and singer Irving Kaufman follow the same script of Jewish immigrants assimilating through minstrelsy. Fortunately, they're joined by someone practiced at transcending mediocrity. Only Bix could rock this rickety "Cradle."

April 02, 2008 · 0 comments


Why the Cornet?

by Jim Cullum

Jim Cullum

There's a question I hear over and over: "Is that a cornet?" Almost always, it's followed with: "Why a cornet and not a trumpet?"

At the present time, there are quite a number of great cornetists blowing up a storm: Warren Vaché Jr., Tom Pletcher, Tommy Saunders, Randy Reinhart, Peter Ecklund, and my favorite of all, Bob Barnard. Of course there are many others.

But why the cornet?

Louis Armstrong himself, 30 years after his death, now finally acknowledged as the greatest of all contributors to jazz, showed his clear preference for the trumpet. Louis' soaring trumpet was the inspiration for all the great swing era trumpet stars. As a group, they completely dominated jazz brass playing. A list of the most famous in this camp would include Bunny Berrigan, Ziggy Elman, Hot Lips Page, Yank Lawson, Pee Wee Erwin, Charlie Shavers, Billy Butterfield, and Harry James. All were serious trumpet players and serious disciples of Louis.

With the exception of Wild Bill Davison, the only well-known jazz cornet players of those days were those who were so captivated by the beautiful cornet tone of Bix Beiderbecke that they chased that elusive holy grail throughout their careers and stuck with their cornets. It was the sound that they were after. There were not many: Bobby Hackett, Maxie Kaminsky, Jimmy McPartland. A few others played the cornet from time to time, but were mostly trumpet players. Rex Stewart and Ray Nance come to mind. None were big stars, although Hackett finally sort of hit it in the 1950s with his solos on the Jackie Gleason records.

Many of us who are followers of both the Armstrong and Beiderbecke traditions end up with collections of cornets and trumpets. At one point I was carrying three gig bags around--one with a trumpet, one with a flugelhorn and one with a cornet.

In 1979, our band made its first visit to Europe where we played for a couple of festivals, including the annual Breda Festival in Holland. There I found a very high-powered flea market selling instruments at high prices. On a whim, I stopped by with my trumpet and flugelhorn and negotiated. They went on sale and were gone in an hour. I've been strictly a cornetist ever since.

My pockets lined with flea market cash, I beaded for Paris and the factory of the Courtois Company, makers of fine cornets. Courtois is the oldest instrument maker in the world, and they will proudly tell you that they made brass instruments as far back as the late 1700s (they even made instruments for Napoleon).

The Courtois factory on Rue de Nancy, Paris is quite amazing. There, about five workmen still hand-hammer bells. It is obvious that everything in the shop is quite old. As I remarked on this, the owner exclaimed, "Oh, this our new place. We moved here in 1860!" Soon I was on my way with two shiny new Courtois Cornets.

That night, my Parisian pal Pierre Atlao took me around to sit in at several "Caves" (basement jazz bistros thick with smoke--there are still some in Paris today). At the famed "Slow Club" we found the even more famed soprano saxophonist Claude Luter and his band.

As I showed off my new Courtois cornets, Luter laughed. The French brass players can't wait to get their hands on American instruments, he said while here I was in Paris chasing Courtois cornets on Rue de Nancy.

Why the cornet? It's the sound, the flexibility, and also I'd say its the magic of the Beiderbecke model.

I now have quite a collection of cornets. In a later articles, I'll run down the list. Each comes with an interesting story.

© Riverwalk Jazz. Published with the permission of Riverwalk Jazz.

January 18, 2008 · 1 comment


Ornette Coleman: Lonely Woman

We still haven't come to grips with the turbulence unleashed by Free Jazz during the period that started with the Age of Ornette and roughly ended with the Arrival of Wynton. Critics will continue to debate the importance of this body of work. Nonetheless the day is past when anyone could release a recording called The Shape of Jazz to Come -- unless it was meant as a wry post-modern joke. No, this was not the shape of jazz to come, and what promised to be the final destination of the jazz idiom proved to be one more passing phase. But the best examples of the Free Jazz aesthetic continue to exert their power, and few are more potent than this early example of the Ornette Coleman quartet in full flight. Coleman's melody is haunting and his counterpoint with Don Cherry unforgettable. Haden's throbbing bass also contributes to the overall effect. Listening to this piece in 1959 must have been an unnerving experience, but after a half century of changing jazz fads and fashions it still will stir you up.

December 09, 2007 · 1 comment


Bix Beiderbecke: Jazz Me Blues

When a high-school teacher in Hollywood's juvenile-delinquent flick Blackboard Jungle (1955) plays this track for his students, gangbangers contemptuously shatter both the teacher's collection of fragile shellac disks and his equally brittle illusions about educating teenagers. As broken as his records, the teacher quits his job. The moral may be Cast Not Pearls Before Swine, but there's nothing elitist about "Jazz Me Blues." With disciplined ensembles framing individualistic solos, it's a civics lesson in democracy. Maybe that's why the gangbangers rioted. Jazz extols cooperative freedom, which terrorists fear. "Jazz Me Blues" is a pluralistic pearl.

December 02, 2007 · 0 comments


Frank Trumbauer & Bix Beiderbecke: Mississippi Mud

"Just as happy as a cow chewin' on her cud," regales Bing Crosby, "when the darkies beat their feet on the Mississippi mud." No track better exemplifies the diamonds-in-quicksand contradictions of Jim Crow jazz. The jewels are supplied by Bix Beiderbecke, whose cornet glitters gloriously amidst the muck of racial condescension. Instead of attacking a note head-on, Bix would sneak up on it, rolling the note delicately through his horn as if massaging a caterpillar, and finally spring it surprised from his bell, newly arrayed. Bix's laid-back lyricism redeems a track that would otherwise belong at the bottom of the swamp.

November 24, 2007 · 0 comments


Frank Trumbauer & Bix Beiderbecke: Krazy Kat

Hollywood's Young Man With a Horn (1950), writes film scholar David Sterritt, is "loosely based" on Bix Beiderbecke and "explicit about the trumpet as a fetish." Any suggestion that Bix was sexually fixated on his cornet is pretty sick stuff, but nobody better embodied the self-destructive Roaring Twenties. Here Bix cavorts with another Jazz Age icon—Krazy Kat, feline focus of George Herriman's long-running newspaper cartoon. Surprisingly, this track is distinguished by its orderliness. Bix's languid legato presides over a businesslike ensemble about as wild & crazy as President Calvin Coolidge soberly invoking what Chico Marx called a "sanity clause."

November 24, 2007 · 0 comments


Warren Vaché: Quasimodo

The post-World War II dispute between jazz modernists and Dixieland revivalists spawned the colorful term "moldy figs" to describe diehard traditionalists. Amidst this surprisingly bitter feud, Warren Vaché was born (1951). A quarter century later, the controversy long forgotten, Vaché emerged as a cornetist, seemingly in the mold of figs Ruby Braff and Pee Wee Erwin (Vaché's instructor). Hadn't he heard? The modernists won! Jazz trumpet meant Diz & Miles, not Bix & Bobby Hackett. Vaché molders on, but he's no dogmatist. Here, with a sweetly succulent cover of Bird's "Quasimodo," Vaché's fresh fig leaves no doubt he's mold- free.

November 21, 2007 · 0 comments


Muggsy Spanier: Big Butter and Egg Man

"Muggsy" is a splendid jazz name. But can you picture it in another genre? Muggsy Beethoven, say, strains credulity. Jazz's Muggsy Spanier, though, was on the cutting edge of pre-World War II Dixieland revivalism—that is, if a revivalist can be cutting edge. Here he revives a 1926 Louis Armstrong Hot Five classic to dubious effect. Muggsy was not in Louis's league as a cornetist (who was?). Nor does George Brunies shouting "Jive me, Jack" rival Armstrong's bawdy banter with singer May Alix. Absent the tongue- in-cheekiness of present-day retro, Muggsy is mugged by his own sincerity. More egg than butter.

November 21, 2007 · 0 comments


Bix Beiderbecke: From Monday On

Paul Whiteman was like a giant, mostly benign mothership that swallowed up available musicians like Bix and his buddies. However, his relentless touring and recording schedule quickly took a toll on Bix’s health. The commercial pressure to record so many icky “sweet” tunes took its own toll, but that was mostly on later generations of critics. Bix just kept on improvising great solos, such as the one on “From Monday On.” (Granted, “From Monday On,” written by Bing Crosby and Harry Barris, isn’t nearly as icky as much of the Whiteman material.) Bix recorded three extant takes over two sessions, and each of his performances is distinctive and memorable. Here, on Take 6, he cuts through Crosby and company’s vocals like a swinging scythe.

November 20, 2007 · 0 comments


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