Perfect Sound Forever

The young music of yesterday:
Early Jazz

Jelly Roll Morton (courtesy of William Russell Collection)
& Bix Beiderbecke (courtesy of Bix Resource Page)

by Brian J. Wolle

We are so lucky to have so many musics available via radio or TV or the more tangible, CD's, tapes and records. Hopefully, we all listen to a pretty broad spectrum. One source I think that's neglected however, is the early jazz recordings from the nineteen twenties. Not only were the instruments pre-electric, but so were the earliest recording methods! This means the band, or whoever was the artist had to stand in front of a large megaphone which channeled the sound to a needle which was inscribing the vibrations onto a "master."

 The bands had a difficult time getting the right "balance"- they would experiment with test recordings to see who was louder or quieter than the others. But you couldn't slide a control to lower someone's volume: they would have to literally move back, away from the others to compensate.

 The resulting sound quality was none too great by our standards, but must have been a marvel for those listening then to be able to pick out individual players and singers all from a piece of shellac! And of course, the transcriptions are all powered by arm- you had to wind those early phonographs by hand as you probably know. Differing volumes were acquired by opening or shutting a door where the sound emitted.

 It all sounds antiquated, I'm sure. So why do I advocate this music? The sound that comes to you from those echoes of the past are fresh and alive and new (I should also add that new noise reduction systems improve the sound quality quite a bit). Don't think your father's Dixieland records: this is music by young people for young people. The grownups of the time were definitely thumbing their collective noses at it.

Two sources are usually cited for the beginnings of jazz: ragtime and the blues. To this, I would add many others: "band" music in general, popular songs, even the folk music historian John Lomax stated somewhere that all blues rhythms came from trains!

 A man named Buddy Bolden is given credit for being the first jazz musician -he played trumpet in New Orleans and never recorded. This makes for interesting legend and myth. There is someone else though, who claimed to have created, or invented jazz who recorded quite extensively: Jelly Roll Morton of New Orleans.

Many people discount the claims of this early giant of American recorded music, but their reasoning is way beyond me. I believe everything he says to me, the proof, or a close approximation, is right at hand. his wonderful piano solos from twenty-three and -four of pieces that he had written much earlier show how the rhythm still incorporated some ragtime elements, but was breaking away in fine form.

 Moreover, he personally knew Scott Joplin, the ragtime "King"- Jelly went to the best of schools, absorbing it all. As he said, reminding one of Mozart's absorbing music first hand at every court in Europe: "All styles are Jelly Roll."

 Recently, more "proof" has been made commercially available: the recordings Jelly did for the Library of Congress in 1938. He was down on his luck and just happened to be living in the Nation's capital. Alan Lomax (John's brother) heard of this and invited him down. It is a real eye-opener to hear him reminisce while he plays!

Another of the giants of early jazz recording needs his image revamped: Louis Armstrong has a "bigger than life" reputation, but I think it is a little misguided. Again, don't think the mature man, so much as seek out the young man just embarking on one of the greatest musical quests of the twentieth century. His first recordings are as a twenty-two year old, having moved from his beloved New Orleans for the first time to answer the call from his idol, "King" Joe Oliver in Chicago with his fabulous "Creole Jazz Band."

 He was playing second cornet to Joe and mighty glad to do it, but a seed of discontent was planted from within the band itself: the piano player soon became his second wife and encouraged him to move on. She felt his playing had surpassed Joe's, and there was no longer any use playing in his shadow.

 Move on he did, eventually leaving her too. All those early recordings with Louis' horn are true classics. He played with Clarence Williams, Fletcher "Smack" Henderson, and backed most of the prominent blues singers (including Bessie Smith), before leading his own (studio) band: the "Hot Five". This band recorded the famous "Heebie Jeebies" where Louis scat sang later claiming he dropped the lyric sheet. He also switched to the brighter trumpet around this time to better bring out his sound.

 Louis was becoming the first jazz solo star which was a big change also: it altered the old "New Orleans" style which centered on ensemble playing, with constant interacting and improvising. But was he done? In 1929, a song was recorded that became a hit -"I Can't Give You Anything But Love" has him singing and playing a "popular" song for the first time. His singing is, well, relaxed is the term. Casual also comes to mind. It is hard to realize that this was rather revolutionary, but it changed singing for ever. There was even a new written rhythmic figure to approximate his bending of note-times: a triplet, but with the middle note removed!

 The third figure of importance to be mentioned is probably jazz's biggest legend: Bix Beiderbecke of Davenport, Iowa on the Mississippi. His brother came home from the first World War, and bought a phonograph and some records, among them were records from the earliest recorded jazz band- the Original Dixieland Jass Band. Bix was floored, and soon took up the cornet. He had familiarity with music: a child prodigy of sorts on piano to the extent that teachers couldn't get him to read notes, and weren't impressed by his memorizing the next week's lesson from watching the teacher introduce it the week before!

 This refers to one of his talents: that of perfect pitch, when in later years, (though Bix had no "later years" as he died at twenty-eight) a game would be played with him to state all ten of the notes struck on a piano and invariably being correct. This also led to one other odd trait: he played the cornet in an "unschooled" manner; using fingerings considered incorrect for reason of their difficulty in pitch, but also allowing him ease in certain passages where another player might find hard going.

 These things alone aren't enough to merit jazz immortal status. Obviously, that would depend more on the music he made than anything else.

Solos by Bix are in a category by themselves. You can attempt to describe or define them, but in the end, it remains inadequate. This is further complicated by the fact that not every one will "get it." They are in essence lyric poetry.

 Developments between Louis and Bix were marvelous. As Doc Cheatham put it, Bix played on Chicago's North, Louis the South, but they came to see each other and loved what they heard, becoming good friends in the meantime. Louis set the musicians' world on its ear, many players aping him down to his mannerisms, but Bix ended up impressing them too since surprisingly, he sounded nothing like Louis. One result was that in the thirties, many soloists evolved a meld between the two styles.

 There were some excellent bands that recorded then also; my favorite has to be the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Though their cornetist took King Oliver as a model, that band didn't play blues as did Joe's. To the interesting songs they played, they added wonderful ensemble playing, mostly due to their pianist, Mel Stitzel. Also, their clarinetist Leon Ropollo, is a marvel to hear. Jelly liked them too, and made some recordings with them that are nice to have. They also have to their credit the finest example of the difference between jazz and ragtime, with their jazz version of Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag"!

 There are many honorable mentions in this little gallery. James P. Johnson made some great piano solos; Duke Ellington made a promising start in nineteen twenty-six with who is considered the third of the three best trumpet men of the decade: "Bubber" Miley (we've already met Louis and Bix). Two other good bands are the Original Memphis Five and McKinney's Cotton Pickers. And don't forget the blues of people like "Blind Lemon" Jefferson, "Ma" Rainey, Lonnie Johnson and Bessie Smith.

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