Pondering an American Cultural Treasure

Most of you who read my blog probably don’t know it, but I am a big-time “jazzmaniac” * and I have been for a long time. It all started around age 16 when I discovered my father’s 33rpm of Louis Armstrong’s ground-breaking recordings from 1927-28 with Earl “Fatha” Hines. Well that was around 1978 or 1979 when most kids I knew who were around my age were listening to rock groups like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones. Most of them couldn’t give a hoot about Jazz. Sure, I dug Rock and Roll then and still do, but I knew that there were other great forms of music as well. Jazz just grabbed me from the beginning and I’ve been in love with this great music ever since. One thing I sensed early on – there was a lot more to Jazz than the music alone.

* A term that was made popular by jazz drummer Kenny Washington.

This has given me a long time to ponder the meaning of Jazz – about 35 years. And for some reason I am now compelled to put my thoughts to (virtual) paper. This will be my humble, incomplete and certainly imperfect attempt to explain what Jazz means to me. And if this gets one person who was formerly apathetic about Jazz to sit down and enjoy it, then I will have accomplished something. Jazz is, after all, also about sharing.

One thing about Jazz, it made me want to know – who were the people who created this amazing music. I think part of this drive to know is the amateur anthropologist/historiographer hiding inside me. Where did the music originate? What culture or cultures did it emerge from? You cannot separate the people from the music. Jazz is the expression of almost everything it is to be human. In this sense Rock and Roll seems far more one dimensional – the product of youthful, somewhat immature concerns and obsessions. What was unique about Jazz was that it came out of the experiences, for the most part, of the American Negro. Therefore, its roots are folk music. It can be argued that it was the Negro’s music that was his or her primary form of artistic expression and the only one visible to most of the outside world. Incidentally, anyone who studies the history of rock music knows that “Negro music” played an essential role in its development. Rock and Roll would not exist if it were not for the blues which originated out of the southern Negro culture.

It is the people who made and created jazz that give it its depth. Lester Young, the great tenor saxophone player who came to prominence in the late 1930’s with the Count Basie Band, once said that he would never play a solo if he did not know the words behind the song. He had to know the song, even if the band was playing an instrumental version with no vocals. Lester knew that if he did not understand the meaning of a song, the human story, the emotions, that his solo would be in vain, it would be meaningless. The ideas behind the song were the compass that gave his solos direction. The mechanics of playing music did not seem to matter to Lester Young.

Lester Young playing tenor saxophone ca. 1940.

Lester Young playing tenor saxophone ca. 1940.

Near the end of his life, when he was deteriorating rapidly both mentally and physically, Lester Young played one of his greatest solos ever. Lester may no longer have had the capacity to play some of the jubilant solos of his earlier days, but that did not matter. The song was “Fine and Mellow” and during this recording and filming session for CBS Lester was reunited after several years with female singer Billie Holiday. I do not know if Lester and Billie were ever romantically involved, but there is no doubt in my mind that they loved and respected each other very deeply. Because that’s what their music tells me. Lester was so frail that day that no one was sure if he would be able to play with the band. But oh did he play!

Tenor saxophonist Ben Webster played his solo before it was Lester’s turn. Webster was no slouch. After all, the great bandleader and composer Duke Ellington thought highly enough of Webster to ask him in 1935 to join his band. But when Webster solos on “Fine and Mellow” you know what he is playing – a tenor saxophone. His instrument sounds like it’s supposed to, like you’d expect it to sound. Contrast that to Lester’s solo a little later in the tune – it doesn’t sound like a tenor saxophone at all. It doesn’t sound like any instrument that has ever existed. It is pure Lester, pure emotion. It’s as if there are no mechanics, no reed, no instrument there at all, just Lester’s spirit, Lester’s soul.

Lester’s lean solo contained only about 50 notes or so, whereas Webster’s probably contained two or three times as many. Amazingly, Lester’s playing seems to have a pronounced effect on the band; the tempo slows a bit, the band plays more softly and it’s as if the members of the band are stepping aside for the moment out of reverence and respect for Lester. Compare Lester’s “Fine and Mellow” solo to ones like his blazers on Taxi War Dance, or Woodside, or Limehouse Blues and one cannot help but be astonished at the range and depth of expression that Young was able to communicate through his horn.

Jazz critic Nat Hentoff was in the control room during the recording of “Fine and Mellow” and recalled that Lester’s solo literally brought everyone in the control room to tears:

“Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half–smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been—whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways.”

The great jazz musicologist, Gunther Shuller wrote, “Billie and Lester – two great tragic figures of jazz – never saw each other again. Little more than a year later, they were both gone; they died within four months of each other. Billie was only 44, Lester, 49.

Billie Holiday, 1947 by William Gottlieb.

Billie Holiday, 1947 by William Gottlieb.

Billie Holiday, 1949 by Herman Leonard.

Billie Holiday, 1949 by Herman Leonard.

Jazz is also a great medium through which to learn about American history, the good as well as the bad. Most of the great jazz musicians were Black. I’ll leave it to someone else to explain this, but there are certainly exceptions, like Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman. So if you study the lives of these great Black masters of 20th century Jazz music, you cannot escape the stain of racism on our history. Some of these all Black bands and musicians tried to avoid touring in the Deep South altogether if they could. Trumpet virtuoso, Roy Eldridge, was one of the first Black jazz musicians to be integrated into an all-White swing band. The trouble was that although Roy was at least on equal footing musically with anyone else in the band, he still felt like an outcast. While traveling on the road with Gene Krupa’s band, Roy could not dine in the local eateries with the rest of the band because of his skin color. And Roy knew the only proper entrance for a Black man at many of their music venues was through the back door. It was too much for poor Roy to take and he had to quit playing with the all-White bands. But Gene Krupa and Artie Shaw both showed guts when they asked Roy to join their bands, they didn’t care that Roy was Black. What they cared about was Roy’s playing and what he brought to the stage and Roy was really great. He wasn’t called “Little Jazz” for nothing.

Roy Eldridge.

Roy Eldridge.

Gene Krupa even got into a fistfight once when one restaurant owner refused to serve Roy because of his skin color. On another occasion one local police official trumped up charges against Krupa because he didn’t think it was proper that a Black man was playing and travelling with an otherwise all-White band. In addition to being a great musician and performer, Roy Eldridge was one of the nicest, sweetest guys ever and so these stories really break your heart.

One amazing human being who played jazz was a man who went by the name of Chick Webb. Born William Henry Webb in 1905, Chick was one of the greatest swing drummers of his era. His powerful, often melodic solos, were innovative displays of swinging, syncopated rhythms. As everyone knows drumming is a physically demanding part of any Jazz band, which makes Chick Webb’s playing all that more amazing because Chick was a very sickly human being throughout most of his short life. He contracted tuberculosis of the spine as a young child which resulted in a badly deformed spine. Chick wasn’t even 5 feet tall and he looked like a hunchback.

Chick Webb at his drums, ca. 1937.

Chick Webb at his drums, ca. 1937.

In the 1930’s Chick and his orchestra played regularly at the Savoy Ballroom, an upscale dance club in Harlem were the “Battle of the Bands” competition was often held. His band often came out on top even edging out the Benny Goodman and Count Basie bands. One might say that Chick Webb deserved the title “King of Swing” as much as anybody. You can really hear Chick driving the band on some of the suggested listening numbers below. Listen to Chick’s drums during the first break on “Who Ya Hunchin’.” Later in the tune you can hear Chick joyfully shouting “YEAH!” as the band pushes to the heights of swing.

Chick died from his spinal tuberculosis when he was only 34. He kept playing almost to the very end even though he was often in great pain. Although small in stature, Chick Webb was big in spirit. He had a lot of heart and played big.

Look for the next Jazz post where I’ll explore some of the other great Jazz personalities and their music.

Frotho Canutus

Note: My use of the words Black and Negro are not meant to offend anyone. These words are simply better choices (in my opinion) for communicating the history of Jazz and are the same words used by jazz musicologists of previous generations. The point of this post is to learn something about Jazz and the wonderful people who made it. The purpose of this blog is not to be concerned about political correctness and self-censorship. P.C. is anti-freedom, and therefore anti -Jazz.

Suggested listening (some can be heard on YouTube):

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven (Armstrong – cornet, trumpet, vocals):

“Potato Head Blues” (Recorded 5/10/27)

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five:

“Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” (12/9/27)

“Sugar Foot Strut” (6/28/28)

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra:

“Basin Street Blues” (12/4/28)

Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five:

“St. James Infirmary” (12/12/28)

Lester Young (tenor saxophone) with the Count Basie Orchestra:

“Jumpin’ at the Woodside” (August 22, 1938)

Taxi War Dance (March 19, 1939)

Lester Young (tenor sax, clarinet) with Glenn Hardman and his Hammond Five:

“On the Sunny Side of the Street” (June 26, 1939)

Lester Young (tenor saxophone) with Billie Holiday (vocals):

“He’s Funny That Way” (8/13/37)

“When You’re Smiling” (January 6, 1938)

“All of Me” (3/21/41)

“Fine and Mellow” (12/8/57)

Roy Eldridge (trumpet, vocals) with the Gene Krupa Orchestra:

“Let Me Off Uptown” (May 8, 1941)

“Rockin’ Chair” (July 2, 1941)

“Skylark” (November 25, 1941)

Chick Webb (drums) and His Orchestra:

“Harlem Congo” (Nov. 1, 1937)

“Liza” (May, 1938)

“Who Ya Hunchin’” (August 18, 1938)

“Undecided” (Feb. 17, 1939)

Chick Webb on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgX5_waK–w