From Basin St. to Birdland

Mike Conklin on Jazz

What kinda blues you got?

The blues, which I consider to be an extension of the field holler and work song, was an immensely popular genre throughout the 1910s and 1920s. Many historians divide the style into two categories: country blues and classic (vaudeville) blues.

The earliest style, the country blues, was performed primarily by male musicians throughout the rural South (from the Mississippi Delta to the Carolinas). The form was loose, elastic, and improvisatory — suitable for creating a melodic line that carried the emotion of the performer.

W. C. Handy, known as the “Father of the Blues,” wrote in his autobiography of the experience of sleeping on a train while traveling through Mississippi and being awakened by:

… a lean, loose-jointed Negro [who] had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. … The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly… The singer repeated the line (“Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog”) three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.

A fine example of the country blues is Blind Lemon Jefferson and “Black Snake Moan.”

“Black Snake Moan”

I ain’t got no mama now
I ain’t got no mama now
She told me late last night, “You don’t need no mama no how”

Mmm, mmm, black snake crawlin’ in my room
Mmm, mmm, black snake crawlin’ in my room
Some pretty mama better come and get this black snake soon

Ohh-oh, that must have been a bed bug, baby a chinch can’t bite that hard
Ohh-oh, that must have been a bed bug, honey a chinch can’t bite that hard
Ask my sugar for fifty cents, she said “Lemon, ain’t a child in the yard”

Mama, that’s all right, mama that’s all right for you
Mama, that’s all right, mama that’s all right for you
Mama, that’s all right, most seen all you do

Mmm, mmm, what’s the matter now?
Mmm, mmm, honey what’s the matter now?
Sugar, what’s the matter, don’t like no black snake no how

Mmm, mmm, wonder where my black snake gone?
Mmm, mmm, wonder where this black snake gone?
Black snake mama done run my darlin’ home


In the beginning…

Well, I have to admit…trying to maintain a blog that ties neatly from one subject to another (without using a strict, diachronic approach)  is quite a challenge!

So, I have opted to take the easy way out! I hope that you don’t object!

From here on, I will be covering the history of jazz as it unfolded over the course of time.

In the beginning…there was the blues!

Bessie Smith began her professional career in 1912 by joining a traveling show with Ma Rainey (who would become Smith’s mentor) and subsequently performed in various touring minstrel shows and cabarets. By the 1920s, she was a leading artist on the TOBA circuit. In 1923, Smith made her first commercial recording for Columbia records; accompanied by pianist Clarence Williams, Bessie recorded “Gulf Coast Blues” and “Down Hearted Blues.”  She recorded regularly until 1928 with important early jazz instrumentalists such as Williams, James P. Johnson, and various members of Fletcher Henderson’s band, including Louis Armstrong. Her rendition of “St. Louis Blues” with Armstrong is considered by most critics to be one of finest recordings of the 1920s.  In 1929, she appeared in the film St. Louis Blues. By then, however, alcoholism had severely damaged her career, as did the Depression, which affected the recording and entertainment industries. A recording session, her last, was arranged in 1933 by John Hammond for the increasing European jazz audience; it featured among others, Jack Teagarden and Benny Goodman. Sadly, her life was tragically cut short by an automobile accident in 1937; while driving in Mississippi, her car rear-ended a slow-moving truck and rolled over. Bessie’s  left arm and ribs were crushed and she consequently bled to death by the time she reached the hospital.

Listen to “Gulf Coast Blues”:

Long Live the Count!

Count Basie (1904 – 1984)

Track: One O’Clock Jump

Line-up: Count Basie (piano); Buck Clayton (trumpet), Ed Lewis (trumpet); Bobby Moore (trumpet); Earle Warren (alto sax); Herschel Evans (clarinet, tenor sax); Lester Young (tenor sax); Freddie Green (guitar); Walter Page (bass); Jo Jones (drums); George Hunt; Dan Minor (trombone); Jack Washington (baritone sax).

Arranged by Eddie Durham & Buster Smith. Composed by Count Basie.

Recorded: New York, July 7, 1937

Available on: Ken Burns Jazz – Count Basie (Verve 314 549 090-2); Decca, the label under which Basie initially recorded the tune, is currently not issuing the original recording.

Count Basie and his band recorded “One O’clock Jump” on their first recording session for Decca Records on January 21, 1937. The tune was an instant success for Basie and the first for his band following their arrival in New York City from Kansas City.

Original Key: F Major
Form: 12-bar blues

What to listen for:

Basie starts the tune off with an 8-bar boogie-woogie introduction followed by a two-chorus solo. The rhythm section, known as the All-American Rhythm Section, provides support for Basie’s improvisation; you can hear Freddie Green comping steadily behind him. Tenor saxophonist, Lester Young blows over the changes for one chorus, while the trumpet section plays a syncopated riff underneath. Dan Minor trades choruses with Prez (Lester Young) and Buck Clayton. Basie enters with his idiomatic, sparse style one a short solo. The band enters at 2:10 and plays the tune out.

Them There Eyes

Billie Holiday (1915 - 1949)

Today marks the 72nd anniversary of Billie Holiday’s recording of  “Them There Eyes” (W24879-Vocalion / OKeh 5021) for the Vocalion label.

“Them There Eyes” was written by Maceo Pinkard, Doris Tauber, and William Tracey. It was published in 1930 with one of the earliest recorded versions done by Louis Armstrong in 1931.  It was Holiday’s version, however, that truly made the song a hit.

The tune is a exemplary of Holiday’s time spent, not as a torch singer but, as jump singer. The year was 1939 and her star was ascendant. Since her first recording date with the Benny Goodman Orchestra in 1934, Holiday worked with Ellington in 1935 and fronted bands of such leaders Teddy Wilson and Count Basie.

As was typical in the Swing Era, the song, in this case a fox-trot, is a vehicle for solo improvisation for the instrumentalists and dancing for the audience.

Here’s the line-up:

Charlie Shavers, trumpet; Tab Smith, soprano and alto sax; Kenneth Hollon, Stanley Payne, tenor sax; Sonny White, piano; Bernard Addison, guitar; John Williams, bass; Eddie Dougherty, drums; Billie Holiday, vocals. New York, July 5, 1939.

Here’s the tune:

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Frankie Trumbauer

Before there was Coleman Hawkins, whom many consider to be the “Father of the Tenor Saxophone,” there was Frank Trumbauer.

Frank  Trumbauer (also known as Tram) was born on May 30, 1901 and was one of the leading jazz saxophonists of the 1920s and 1930s. He played the C-melody saxophone which, in size, is between an alto and tenor saxophone. After serving in the United States Navy during World War I, Frankie Trumbauer pursued a career as a musician, working first in local bands before moving to Chicago, one of the meccas of the early jazz scene. In 1925-6, he led a band with cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. The two ultimately established a close association where they worked together in orchestras led by Jean Goldkette and perhaps most notably, Paul Whiteman in 1927. Tram would subsequently procure his own recording contract with Okeh Records, a subsidiary of Columbia Records. His recordings with Okeh became some of the most important recordings of the era by white jazz musicians. These performances illustrate the light, airy timbre of Trumbauer and the cool phrasing of Beiderbecke — both of whom were at the peak of their inspiration.  It was his delicate, lyrical approach to the saxophone that influenced one of the Swing Era’s greatest tenor saxophonists, Lester Young.

The following tune is a seminal recording in the jazz canon, Singin’ the Blues.

Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra

February 4, 1927

The cast of characters:

Frankie Traumbauer (C-Melody sax), Bix Beiderbecke (cornet), Eddie Lang (guitar), Jimmy Dorsey (clarinet), Chauncey Morehouse (drums), Bill Rank (trombone) and Paul Mertz (piano).

The tune starts with a four bar introduction and then Tram plays the main melody or head of the tune while Eddie Lang accompanies him. Bix comes in at 1:02 with a lyrical solos over the 32 bar chorus. Then we’ve got some collective improvisation for 8 bars before Jimmy Dorsey solos on clarinet for the next 8 measures. The entire band comes in to close out the tune — one again in collective improvisation!

This is a great example of the cool, laid-back style of Bix and Tram. Perhaps in a later post, I will juxtapose Armstrong and Bix — like night and day!


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Tin Pan Alley

The American Songbook, compositions that are mostly derived from the Tin Pan Alley tradition, has its origins around 1885. A number of music publishers set up shop on West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue. The name, Tin Pan Alley, is a reference to the sound made by many pianos, playing different tunes in this small urban area, that produced a cacophony comparable to banging on tin pans. The musicians who were playing those pianos were deemed “song pluggers.” One famous “song plugger” was George Gershwin.

George Gershwin

The end of Tin Pan Alley’s success fairly nebulous. I suggest that the decline of the era coincided with the end of the Great Depression; most families were spending their quality time being entertained by the phonograph and radio, both of which supplanted sheet music as the driving force of the dissemination of the American popular song.

But prior to the end of the Tin Pan Alley era, Johnny Green composed what would become one of the most popularly used vehicles for jazz improvisation, “Body and Soul.”

Body and Soul

On October 15th of 1930, “Body and Soul” appeared in the Broadway revue, Three’s a Crowd. The show would run for 272 performances with Libby Holman as the vocalist. But, I think the epochal performance was recorded on October 11, 1939 at RCA Studios, New York, NY.

Coleman Hawkins

Here’s the line-up:

Coleman Hawkins (tenor sax), Gene Rodgers (piano), Tommy Lindsay and Joe Guy (trumpets), Earl Hardy (trombone), Jackie Fields and Eustis More (alto sax), William Oscar Smith (bass), Arthur Herbert (drums).

Below is a clip from NPR, which includes Hawkins’s perspective of jazz upon his return from Europe just prior to this recording.

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Frank Sinatra

Picking up where we left off…

Sinatra’s  illuminating career was fading by 1950. Perhaps with a little bit of luck, he landed a supporting role in the film From Here to Eternity; his performance earned him an Academy Award. While his film stardom was ascending, Frank had a million-selling record with the tune Young at Heart (1953) — Sinatra was back and better than ever.

His friend Tony Bennett affirms Frank’s new arrival:

The song, Young at Heart, was so tremendously popular that, in 1954, a film that Sinatra was starring in (along side Doris Day) was named after the tune!

Now that Sinatra had regained momentum, he was once again a valuable commodity; consequently, he was signed to a recording contract with Capitol Records. It would be with Capitol Records and their house arranger, Nelson Riddle, where Sinatra would make some of his most memorable music.

An excellent example of their collaboration is the album Songs for Young Lovers.

Date: November 6, 1953
Location: Los Angeles

Frank Sinatra (ldr), Nelson Riddle (conductor, arranger), Frank Sinatra (vocal)

a.11858 Like Someone In Love  (Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Burke)

b.11859-12I Get A Kick Out Of You  (Cole Porter)

c.12033 Little Girl Blue  (Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers)

d.12034 The Girl Next Door  (Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin)

Capitol LP 10″: W1432 — Songs For Young Lovers   (1954)

Here’s “I Get a Kick Out of You”:

Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle collaborated on nearly twenty albums. He also had the pleasure of working with the incomparable arranger, Billy May. One of their finest records was Come Fly with Me from 1957.

Date: October 8, 1957
Location: Los Angeles

Frank Sinatra (ldr), Billy May (conductor, arranger), Frank Sinatra (vocal)

a.E17696 Blue Hawaii  (Leo Robin, Ralph Rainger)

b.E17697-6 Come Fly With Me  (Sammy Cahn, Jimmy Van Heusen)

c.E17698 Around The World  (Harold Adamson, Victor Young)

d.E17699 It’s Nice To Go Trav’ling  (Sammy Cahn, Jimmy Van Heusen)

e.E17700 Brazil  (Ary Barroso, Bob Russell)

Capitol CD: CDP 7 48469 2 — Come Fly With Me

Here’s the tune:

I think this is quintessential Sinatra. His voice has an added roughness and masculinity  that comes with age and experience (remember — he got his start nearly twenty years earlier!) This is a swingin’ tune, sung by one of the best interpreters of American song.


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Frank Sinatra

The 1940s were rife with musical explorations: Duke Ellington premiered  Black, Brown and Beige in 1943 at Carnegie Hall, Charlie Parker recorded “Koko” with Dizzy Gillespie in 1945, Louis Armstrong was beginning his journey with his All-Stars in 1946, and then there was…Sinatra.

There has been much debate as to what makes a jazz singer: does he or she swing? can he or she improvise? is there a sense of the blues in the performance? So, for many…Sinatra was simply a pop singer. He didn’t improvise or scat, and he certainly didn’t employ a whole lot of blues in his performances (either the blues form for the sensibility of the blues). But…he certainly could swing!

Sinatra got his start in 1939 with the burgeoning Harry James Orchestra. Here’s an example of a tune called “Melancholy Mood” that he did with James’s orchestra:

This arrangement was typical of the sweet, sentimentality of James Orchestra. Sinatra, although grateful for the opportunity to sing with the band, moved on to a more popular and well established aggregate, The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1940.

Tommy Dorsey, the self-proclaimed ” Sentimental Gentleman of Swing,” led a band that was popular with (slow)  fox-trotters; these were slow romantic dances, as opposed to the more up-tempo dances that would truly represent the Swing Era (e.g. the jitterbug).  After two years with the Dorsey band, Sinatra went out on his own; but not before being exposed to the long, lyrical phrasing of the trombonist and thousands of adoring fans.

Here’s author Will Friedwald, an authority on jazz vocalists, discussing the reaction to Sinatra going out on his own in 1942:

Sinatra had the privilege of being signed by Columbia records from 1943 to 1952. In the next example, “All of Me,” you’ll notice a more mature presence — possibly more confident– that truly interprets the tune rather than simply singing it.

Around 1949, Sinatra realized that his audiences were dwindling and that they were perhaps tiring of his romantic crooning. Consequently, his recording contracts would ultimately not be renewed and he would lose his film contracts as well. His career hit bottom, but he would make an astounding comeback, which I’ll cover in tomorrow’s post!

Until then, keep swingin’


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Louis Armstrong

With burgeoning era of Bebop during the 1940s, came somewhat of a backlash from older jazz fans and musicians. This resulted in what became known as the Dixieland Revival. Such musicians as Sidney Bechet began to record again and Louis Armstrong formed his All-Stars, returning to the small ensemble format of the New Orleans style. (As an aside, Armstrong recorded and performed with a big band format almost exclusively from 1929 to 1947!)

As Bebop, also known as Modern Jazz, was developing a following in Harlem and in midtown (52nd Street), clubs featuring Classical Hot Jazz (Dixieland) were opening: a club named Nick’s opening in Greenwich Village and guitarist, Eddie Condon opened a club as well in 1945.

Eddie Condon

Here’s a clip from 1946 where Eddie Condon discusses his feelings on Classic Hot Jazz:

This next excerpt, from 1959, is a swingin’ take on the standard China Boy by Eddie Condon’s All-Stars!

Here’s the lineup: Jimmy McPartland (trumpet), Bud Freeman (tenor sax), Pee Wee Russell (clarinet),  Gene Krupa (drums),  Eddie Condon (guitar),  Jack Teagarden (trombone), Joe Sullivan (piano), and Bobby Haggart (bass).

And we’re off!

So, the tune starts off with each player taking two bars as the announcer introduces the band. FYI: I LOVE Gene Krupa’s exuberance!

Once everyone is properly announced, the All-Stars do what they do best — kick it old school (Classic Hot Jazz, folks!)

A little bit of cheer for your Wednesday!


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Thelonious Monk

In the previous post, I tried to illustrate the connection between Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk; primarily, both approached the piano with percussive attacks and favored dissonance (Monk, obviously took it to another level).  The album, Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington (1955), was Orrin Keepnews’s  (of Riverside Records) attempt at making Monk more accessible to the public.

Here are some thoughts from Orrin Keepnews on working with Monk:

Monk made his first recordings as leader for Blue Note in 1947, Genius of Modern Music, Vol. 1. He would continue his relationship with Blue Note until 1952, when he was signed by Prestige Records. The apex of Monk’s association with Prestige came in 1954. Perhaps most significantly, he led a quintet through the originals “We See,” “Locomotive,” and “Hackensack” and a standard, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

Keepnews goes on to discuss what solidified his relationship with Monk and as a consequence why Monk joined Riverside:

Monk, throughout his career, generally led a trio or quartet: the arrangement would be piano, bass, drums for the trio and an added horn (usually a tenor sax) for the quartet. Charlie Rouse, on tenor sax, would be one of the mainstays of Monk’s aggregate — playing with him for 13 years. Occasionally, a fifth horn (usually a trumpet) would be added for a quintet ensemble.

Monk and Riverside would part ways when Columbia offered him a more lucrative contract. He would stay with Columbia from 1962 to 1970.

Here’s a live performance from Oslo, Norway in 1966. The tune, one of my favorites (and apparently Monk’s too!) is “Blue Monk.”

The cast of characters:

Thelonious Monk (piano), Charlie Rouse (tenor sax), Larry Gales (bass), Ben Riley (drums).

Here’s the tune!

The Thelonious Monk Quartet, Oslo, Norway

So, the tune is a typical 12-bar blues with each cycle of 12 bars being called a chorus.

Monk starts the tune and plays through the first chorus while the band lays out.

The band kicks in and they blow through two choruses of the tune.

After the third chorus, Monk and Rouse have a kind of call and response going — then Charlie solos while Monk comps in his typical “Monkish” style.

You’ll notice around 2:12, Monk lays out while Rouse continues to blow. A little FYI: Monk is standing up. When someone question about this in an interview, Monk’s response, “I can dig the rhythm better.”

Around 3:11, Monk takes his solo. You’ll notice how it is percussive, dissonant and sparse; it’s my contention that although Monk was a pioneer of the bebop style, he was not a conventional Bebop pianist.

Around 6:24, Monk lays out for Gales’s solo and then Riley’s solo…the track fades out…