Tag Archives: jazz

Nightingales, Warblers, and Other Songbirds

Black Pearls bookHarrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. Rutgers University Press. 1988.

The decade of the 1920’s is known as the classic blues period of jazz history. Much has been written of the groundbreaking music of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver in that period, but it was also a time in which female black blues singers gained notoriety. The most often cited are Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith; the lesser-known include Ida Cox, Sippie Smith, Edith Wilson and others. These singers left the tent show touring circuit and vaudeville performance stage to make breakthroughs in the white-owned phonograph record industry. Record sales soared; but, the roaring times ended with economic depression and the dissolution of many record companies.

The commerce of black performing/recording artists was known as the “race market” and the product “race records”—a time of awkward attempts at promoting and selling activities and results with references to skin color. New releases were promoted by record companies with full page newspaper advertisements introducing “race record” music and artist—illustrations are provided in this book. In the clubs, these women worked the classy Harlem Clubs that catered to the moneyed white audiences. The revues they starred in on Broadway were usually all black performer presentations—these women could act or dance or offer comedy in addition to vocalize the blues. The advent of radio programming in 1925 had a mixed effect, but clearly introduced this music to a new and large audience. The blues queens had available outlets to please any category of audience—young or old, black or white, and rich or poor.

Author Harrison, an academician, describes the blues music as a reflection of life experience of women in the 1920s. Love and sex; reprisal and violence; poverty and discrimination are common themes. How was this expressed in song?

In Bessie Smith’s tune “Dying by the Hour” we hear:
It’s an old story, every time it’s a doggone man.

Ida Cox from “Georgia Hound Blues”:
Like a hound, you chase all night and you don’t come home till morn.
Pretty daddy, the undertaker has got your last (chase) on.

And, in “Pink Slip Blues,” Cox sings of terminated welfare benefits:
After four long years, Uncle Sam done put me on the shelf,
‘Cause that little pink slip means you got to go for yourself.

Harrison discusses these song lyrics in a lengthy chapter entitled “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” and categorizes them as travelling blues, drinking blues, dope head blues, street walking blues, and raunchy. She provides many examples of each: Clara Smith sings of the “rambling bug” in the tune “L & N Blues”; Bessie Smith’s “Gin Mill Blues” is touted; Margaret Johnson finds solace in the bottle with “Dead Drunk Blues”; Chippie Hill copies Ma Rainey’s lament on the oldest profession in “Hustlin Blues.” These lyrics were often penned by men, but the vocalist’s manner of expression, inflections, and body language enabled the female listener to identify with the reality in their own lives. The raw lyrics that flowed freely in the tent shows were cleaned up in the recording studio; but, in the clubs the boldness was delivered to appreciative audiences.

Not to be forgotten here though is the singer’s expression of independence that comes through in most recordings. Harrison properly concludes this chapter of the book with reference to the most desirable characteristic in my view—self-reliance. From “Trouble in Mind Blues” sung by Chippie Hill,

I’m alone every night and the lights are sinking low,
I’ve never had so much trouble in my life before.
My good man, he done quit me and there’s talking all over town,
And, I know my baby, you can’t keep a good woman down.

Blues women had to contend with the interference of church institutions and other self-righteous units seeking to derail their voice from stage and airwaves. The demise of live performances in the 1930’s depression era, however, found many returning to the church with their raunchy song vocals a thing of the past and their morals no longer subject to scrutiny; a few became music leaders and sang freely in church as they had done in their youth.

Disagreements with recording companies, who claimed exclusive rights to the singers, were common. Musicians defeated this by recording with other companies under pseudonyms. For example, Ida Cox, who recorded seventy-eight sides for Paramount during the decade, also recorded for Harmograph and Silvertone under a variety of fictitious names. Alberta Hunter recorded 100-plus sides for seven different companies under contract, and went underground to record for Harmograph, Silvertone, Gennet, Buddy, and Puritan labels using the names May Alix, Helen Roberts, Josephine Beatty, or Alberta Prime. Difficult to assign blame here; so, in general one raises a brow toward all participants in the industry—greedy companies and slippery performers. Where do your sentiments lie?

Harrison interviewed four blues women who survived into the 1980s, and for enlightening detail focuses on their lives with full chapters honoring each–Sippie Wallace born in 1898 in Houston; Victoria “Vickie” Spivey born 1906 in Houston; Edith Wilson born 1896 in Louisville; and Alberta Hunter born 1895 in Memphis. Here is a sampling:

“(Edith) Wilson was a singer who sang rather than emoted (no moans or wails); she enjoyed what her voice could do and did it. A blues song was a song, not her life story. . . although the lack of gripping emotional intensity led most critics to discount her as a blues singer, Wilson’s singing satisfied the type of audiences for whom she sang—whites who frequented “sophisticated” Harlem cabarets run by the underworld mobsters (166).”

Writing of Alberta Hunter, “She communicated with the audience intimately on one level but warned it to keep its distance because ‘I don’t take no mess’; yet this was usually coupled with a wry sense of humor. . . She could belt out the blues with the best of the sisters and she could sing a ballad that pleased the nightclub and theater crowds (208).” Hunter was singing and composing songs into her eighties, and performed in New York’s Greenwich Village at a club she sang in fifty years earlier.

The publisher categorizes this book as “Women’s Studies/Music/Black Studies (back cover, top).” Used copies of this book, originally published in 1988, may be acquired in trade paper format for approximately one dollar (plus shipping and handling) online—this edition is distinguished by the bright pink cover. Included in the book are 29 illustrations–blues singer photographs, newspaper ads announcing new releases, record jackets, sheet music covers, and song sheets. The author provides more than four hundred evidentiary footnotes including the oft-cited periodical sources Chicago Defender, The Afro-American, and Melody Maker.

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The Shape of Jazz to Come: Jazz in the Second Decade of the 21st Century and Beyond

Artist Unknown

There is a common myth among the public that jazz is dead. People will argue that there has been no new movement in jazz since Miles Davis and his acolytes spawned fusion in the 1970s. Even Miles himself insisted that Columbia stop marketing him as a jazzman back with the release of his 1970 Bitches Brew. Jazz purists may even argue that music incorporating rock elements is not jazz at all. However, there is a contemporary movement in jazz, and David Hajdu in his January 31, 2010 New York Times profile of pianist Fred Hersch, “Giant Steps: The Survival of a Great Jazz Pianist,” defines it perfectly. He calls this new movement

a wave of highly expressive music more concerned with emotion than with craft or virtuosity; a genre-blind music that casually mingles strains of pop, classical and folk music from many cultures; an informal, elastic music unyielding to rigid conceptions of what jazz is supposed to be.

He continues on, aptly describing this music as “post-Marsalis,” referring to both Wynton and Branford. Since the 1990s, Wynton has been heralded as the King of Jazz, both for his own playing and for the tireless work he puts in to jazz education. I was a product of Wynton’s style of canon-oriented jazz education through my participation in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington high school competition. Learning the classics taught me a greater understanding of what jazz is and where it came from than an education focusing on contemporary jazz ever could have, and I’m very thankful to have had that education. I truly think the Marsalis family has done outstanding work for jazz and makes the music accessible to countless people who otherwise would’ve had no exposure to it. I can’t say enough good things about them. But, there is also value to paying attention to the exciting new school of jazz musicians, particularly the list Hajdu mentions, of Vijay Iyer, Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch, Ethan Iverson, and Jason Moran. I would extend this to include such players as Marco Benevento and John Medeski as well. While Hajdu’s piece focuses solely on Hersch after introducing this idea, I feel that this school of keyboardists and this jazz movement deserve a little more discussion.

Just as Miles was enthusiastic to accept the influence of rock and electronic music, the new movement in jazz gladly accepts the influence of other musics. Vijay Iyer sees jazz as a limitless world. “Jazz is a field. It’s a community of people who care about it. It’s also a history of ideas and a body of knowledge. But it’s always been extremely open and accommodating and welcoming to information and people from elsewhere,” he told Josh Jackson in an NPR interview published online on April 1, 2011. His music reflects this view as well. One of the most obvious examples is the 2011 Tirtha album he recorded with tabla player Nitin Mitta and guitarist Prasanna, both born in India. (Iyer himself was born in America, but is of Indian descent.) This album seamlessly melds Iyer’s jazz and Western classical piano experience with Indian Carnatic music, which Iyer defines as a repertory tradition of century old songs, “basically classical music,” to NPR in the same interview. The album features improvisation in the jazz style as well as improvisation around Carnatic themes. The three players work together to craft a sound that is all their own. In a completely different vein, Iyer also produced the track “Free Jazzmatazz” off of Brooklyn hip hop group Das Racist’s 2010 mixtape Sit Down, Man. Employing minimalist drums and bass parts, Iyer leaves room for himself to craft a lush sonic landscape with polyphonic synthesizer parts. With his work on this track, Iyer and Das Racist create one of the truest unions of the hip hop and jazz worlds in recent memory.

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Curtis Fuller and Keith Oxman at Dazzle

This past weekend (4/13 and 4/14) I had the pleasure of seeing the Curtis Fuller and Keith Oxman sextet at Dazzle Jazz here in Denver. Having played trombone in groups led by John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Benny Golsam, and Art Blakey, Fuller has been a permanent fixture in the jazz scene since the late 1950s, and at 77 years of age, he is still going strong. He still has that graceful, articulate sound he’s come to be known for. Denver-based co-leader, tenor saxophonist Keith Oxman, while a bit younger than Fuller, is a great, widely known name as well with his sound that shows his respect for the classic sax players of the bop and post-bop movements as well as an ear for innovation. The rhythm section of Ken Walker on bass, drummer Todd Reid, and pianist Chip Stephens are frequent collaborators with Oxman, and Denver trumpeter Al Hood rounded out the sextet. This same group can be heard on Curtis Fuller’s 2010 I Will Tell Her and their upcoming album due this summer. Their chemistry as a group is remarkable. Hood’s bright tone perfectly complement Fuller’s mellifluous sound, and Oxman fully rounds out the horn section’s character, while the rhythm section has learned how to function seamlessly as one and accompany the soloists flawlessly.

In a group filled with outstanding players, the biggest surprise of the night was Chip Stephens, who stole the show both evenings with his ambidextrous runs, impeccable sense of syncopated rhythm, and sheer creativity in improvisation. He incorporated classical technique with avant-garde musical ideas, emphasizing beauty and dissonance with a combination of both open-voiced chords and tone clusters. From the first tune of Friday night’s 9pm set, “The Clan,” which closed the show Saturday, Stephens proved himself to be an unbelievably fabulous listener when comping by tastefully responding to and echoing phrases from each and every soloist, pushing them forward without stealing their spotlight. Stephens also shone in his composition “Chip’s Blues,” which came second Saturday and closed the show Friday, crafting a solo with unexpected twists and turns, covering the entire length of the keyboard wonderfully, featuring a nice little quotation from Duke Ellington’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light” on Saturday. On Friday, Stephens also led a rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower,” delightfully emphasizing the flatted fifths and chromatic harmonic movement.

Other great tunes played include the syrupy ballad “Sweetness,” which did not appear in the 9pm set Saturday. “Sweetness” showcased the sweet, smooth trombone tone that Fuller has spent the years perfecting. Hood also sound great on this tune, hitting crisp clear high notes through a Harmon mute (stem removed a la Miles Davis). The centerpiece of each night was the amazing “The Maze” [Fuller’s pun, not mine]. This piece featured Oxman, who exploited the entire range of his saxophone and fluidly maneuvered through different keys, channeling his inner John Coltrane. Between Oxman’s sax presence, Reid’s rolling around his toms with mallets (recreating Elvin’s Jones’s timpani), Stephens’s strong left hand chord voicings, and Walker’s walking bass acting as the bedrock, the audience at Dazzle felt what the audience at Festival Mondial du Jazz Antibes must have felt on July 26, 1965, when the John Coltrane quartet played the seminal A Love Supreme live.

Throughout the night, the simplicity and sophistication of Walker’s bass work was noteworthy; he knew exactly the right note to choose at any given moment and showed incredible clarity with impressive runs during his solos. And, while Reid took a back seat most of the evening, he let loose during his solo on “The Clan,” with some crisp cymbal patterns and wildly fast drumming. For anyone who missed this show, I highly recommend going out to purchase their next album as soon as it is available, to capture some of the magic that happened on stage at Dazzle last weekend.

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Welcome to KUVO’s blog.

Soon this will be the place to go for information about and reviews of albums, live music and much more.

Thanks for taking a look, and stay tuned!

 

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