Thursday, June 16, 2011
Saluting The Sultans Of Swing
Today, the jazz-crazed author of Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog salutes The Sultans Of Swing. Let's start with this clip of Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa, tearing it up in the 1937 Warner Bros. musical Hollywood Hotel.
By the early 1930's, there were already tremendous swing bands led by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong (leading the Luis Russell Orchestra), Fletcher Henderson, Jimmie Lunceford, Cab Calloway, Don Redman, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Walter Page, the Dorsey Brothers and legendary drummer Chick Webb, just to name a few.
Soon these mighty musical juggernauts of 1930 would be followed by Benny Goodman, Count Basie and, in Paris, a "little big band" known as The Hot Club Of France.
It remains a well kept secret to all but the most obsessed jazz buffs that the various Sultans Of Swing continued to record superb albums, and lots of them, long after the heydey of the genre was a dim speck in the rear view mirror. Had guitarists Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, saxophonist Leon "Chu" Berry, bassist Jimmy Blanton and drummer Chick Webb lived longer, they would have as well.
First and foremost, let us not forget the incredible Coleman Hawkins, the featured soloist in the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra (the one that rocked New York City in 1924) who continued performing and recording consistently great music in a distinguished five-decade career.
Hawkins does what he does brilliantly in this clip featuring swing trumpet ace and frequent bandmate Roy "Little Jazz" Eldridge.
Here's The Hawk, in top form, with none other than ubiquitous studio ace and music educator Mickey Baker on guitar, in 1962.
And then there's Ben Webster, who made his name as one of the featured soloists in the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
And then, the flip side of the tenor saxophone coin, the wonderful Lester "Prez" Young, as light and airy in tone as Hawkins and Webster were gritty. Prez first swung the Walter Page and the Count Basie Orchestras and also made guest appearances on Benny Goodman recordings featuring guitarist Charlie Christian.
Along the way, Prez created numerous enduring musical masterpieces, with and without frequent collaborators Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Jo Jones. Late in his career, he recorded the most soulful and heartfelt albums of them all - any genre, any idiom.
Across the pond from Prez, but darn close to equally soulful, the incomparable guitar genius Django Reinhardt.
Although Django passed away in 1953, his Hot Club Of France bandmate, Stephane Grappelli, would continue playing and touring into the 1990's.
Some of the greatest swing music was performed in the early 1940's and anticipates the swing-to-bop revolution in jazz.
This is no news flash. Among the stylistic and spiritual predecessors of Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey were the guys who drove the Goodman and Basie bands, Gene Krupa and "Papa Jo" Jones, who continued rocking the house well into the 1960's.
Jones played frequently with the tenor saxophonist responsible for the wild solo (which anticipated both r&b and hard bop in one fell swoop) on the Lionel Hampton Orchestra's rocked-out 1941 recording of "Flying Home", Illinois Jacquet.
Jacquet and Hampton never got bored with playing Flying Home and neither did the audience, as this 1967 Newport Jazz Festival recording demonstrates.
Among those post-WW2 genre changing recordings would be those by the restlessly creative Artie Shaw, who got bored with being the second King Of Swing in the 1930's and quickly reached the point when he never, ever wanted to play "Begin The Beguine" again).
Shaw continued recording and kept experimenting with new ideas and different ensemble blends long after the big band era was over.
Woody Herman's riff-powered Second Herd, featuring the stalwart sax section of Stan Getz, Zoot Sims,Serge Chaloff, Herbie Steward and (after Steward left the band) the writer of the band's arrangements, Al Cohn, chose the sophisticated swing-to-bop Lester Young approach over the more "thundering" 1930's style of the First Herd.
Also closer in spirit to the next wave - Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Lennie Tristano - than to the commercial pop-oriented big bands - would be three who died in 1941-1942, the aforemtioned Charlie Christian, the Duke Ellington Orchestra's Jimmy Blanton and saxophonist Chu Berry. In fact, it could be argued that Christian WAS the next wave, as he was playing at Minton's Playhouse with Monk and drummer Kenny Clarke, often joined by Parker and Gillespie.
Count Basie Orchestra tenor saxophonist Don Byas, who, as Coleman Hawkins did, always looked forward, unafraid of new ideas in music, would join Dizzy Gillespie's 1942 quintet, featuring Max Roach on drums.
Don Byas relocated to Europe in 1946, where he continued to play and record in a style that blended key elements of swing music and what would be called bebop. Byas would be sought out by younger musicians, as well as American bands on tour.
Among the very harmonically advanced pianists (in addition to Ellington and Hines): the under-recorded but influential Clyde Hart, Mary Lou Williams, Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson.
Mary Lou Williams, the innovative and groundbreaking pianist, had already been looking ahead towards that future in her 1930's recordings as music director/arranger of the Andy Kirk Mighty Clouds Of Joy big band and would continue blazing new frontiers for four decades.
Here's Art Tatum, playing beautifully on The Steve Allen Show (IIRC, the piano virtuoso's only TV appearance) in 1954.
Teddy Wilson would be an enormous influence on the next generation of piano trios - especially those of Bill Evans - and would collaborate with Lester Young, bassist Gene Ramey and Jo Jones on Prez' last great albums in 1956.
Jazz pianist and vocalist Nat "King" Cole, who began his career as a stylistic disciple of Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson, hosted his own TV show in the 1950's! The thought, after viewing the Tatum clip and Nat's shows, persists: imagine, just imagine, jazz on television!
In the corporate-dominated 21st century, with 500+ cable channels, even the once music-friendly PBS is largely a jazz-free zone! So we'll time travel back to 1963 and Nat King Cole's BBC special; even when Nat played and sang primarily in a pop vein, the jazz feeling and harmonic/melodic sophistication remains undeniable.
These musicians and their swinging alumni did us all an enormous favor by never jumping the shark or becoming "oldies" acts.
The Count, The Duke, The Earl Of Hines and their various royalty/alumni, disregarding the ever-ephemeral and shifting public tastes, just continued swinging like mad.
Satchmo, Duke, Mary Lou Williams and Teddy Wilson in particular continued to create masterpieces late in their lengthy musical careers.
Pianist-composers Ellington and Williams kept writing new material and experimenting with new arrangements right up to their last days.
Closing this tribute: two clips of Mary Lou Williams, summarizing decades of jazz and blues with her customary panache and originality.