Sunday, 28 March 2010

Talkin all that jazz

I am presently in the throes of writing an essay on jazz. In my research I've come across particular pieces which are historical markers for the form, and thought I'd share them and have a chat about jazz.

The first piece is 'Dippermouth Blues' by King Oliver & His Creole Band, which was originally recorded in 1923. According to Daniel Kingman, author of American Music: A Panorama (2nd edition), this piece is representative of the traditional, or New Orleans style. It is also a good example of the fundamental variation of jazz technique. You can clearly hear the clarinet, and later the cornet, emerge as soloists. Of note is Louis Armstrong, and here he is playing the cornet.

A vital ingredient of jazz method is improvisation, which is not a matter of 'anything goes', but a fine balance between discipline and freedom. It is this balance, which Kingman says in the 'real essence of jazz performance.'

This notion of improvisation can be illustrated in contrasting two examples. Firstly, we have "Embraceable You" by George Gershwin (1928), and secondly, Charlie Parker's version (1947). Listen for Parker's inventive improvisations on the tune, with a rhythm section of just piano, bass and drums.

As well as reliant on improvisation, jazz is also notable for soloists, as was seen above. Perhaps the most gifted soloist was Louis Armstrong, who was one of the performers who helped to define the 'hot' style of playing in the 1920s, and was an early proponent of 'swing'. Kingman notes that Armstrong's solos, 'with their melodic inventiveness, rhythmic drive, and variety of tonal colour, especially during the period from the 1920s through the late 1930s, were models that had a great influence on the course of jazz as it moved out of the traditional period.'

The example I have chosen features Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra. If I've done my research right, then this is from 1928. The name of the song is also interesting, with 'Muggles' being slang for marijuana. So it would seem that Louis also liked a toot. Pun very much intended.

Whilst any discussion involving the provenance of Jazz invariably speaks of New Orleans, Chicago and New York are also important when looking at its move into urban centres across America. Both cities benefited from the emigration of New Orleans 'jazzmen', and musicians both black and white, were now playing jazz.

With the shift came new players and new ideas, which changed the way jazz was played. In particular, the 'traditional free-wheeling, relaxed, improvised style was lost.' This can be seen in the so-called Chicago style. Unfortunately, due to the attitude and conditions of the times, white musicians, mostly trained by blacks, were reaping the rewards and enjoying a disproportionate share of the economic gains.

According to Kingman, the Chicago style is demonstrative of a kind of adolescence between the carefree youth of the traditional, and the maturity of the soon-to-come, big band style, with its sophisticated craftsmanship. This can be heard in the next two examples "Royal Garden Blues" and "Jazz Me Blues" with Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines (1927).

The shift to New York brought with it three developments. The first was a solo piano style, which grew out of ragtime. Alternatively named 'Rent-party', 'Parlor-social', 'Harlem', or 'stride', these describe, 'in terms of economics, geography, or left-hand agility, a solo piano idiom'. This is best illustrated in the work of its recognised founder, James P. Johnson. The following example, "Carolina Shout" (1921), demonstrates his 'rollicking piano style'.

It's interesting to note that the Harlem rent party was a phenomenon born out of Prohibition and made necessary by the Depression. The aim of the party was to raise the rent, and anyone who could donate a quarter admission, was admitted.

Here's another example from Johnson, "You've Got to be Modernistic" from 1929.

Fats Waller was another stride player, and along with Johnson, became influential in the mainstream of jazz. Before we get to the example, it's interesting to note that Waller was abducted by Capone's gangsters in the 1920s to sing him 'Happy Birthday'. Hustled to the party which was in full swing, Waller was forced to the piano with a gun to his back! This piece is titled "Handful of Keys" (1929).

To be continued...

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