Visions of Jazz: The First Centuryby Gary Giddins
From Louis Armstrong's renegade style trumpet playing to Frank Sinatra's intimate crooning, jazz critic Gary Giddins continually astonishes us with his unparalleled insight./i>
- Editorial Reviews
- Product Details
- Related Subjects
- Read an Excerpt
- What People Are Saying
- Meet the author
Poised to become a jazz classic, Gary Giddins' Visions of Jazz: The First Century contains no less than 78 chapters illuminating the lives of virtually all major figures in jazz history.
From Louis Armstrong's renegade style trumpet playing to Frank Sinatra's intimate crooning, jazz critic Gary Giddins continually astonishes us with his unparalleled insight. In just a few lines, he captures the essence of Louis Armstrong, "He could telegraph with a growl or a rolling of his eyes his independence, confidence, and security. As the embodiment of jazz, he made jazz the embodiment of the individual". Giddins maintains, contrary to the opinion of most jazz enthusiasts, that Armstrong's voice was as much an integral part of creating jazz singing as his trumpet was to creating jazz. Perhaps the most remarkable chapters in the book are those that do pay tribute to the great jazz singers. Billie Holiday profoundly impacted music history, and Giddins eloquently honors her "gutted voice, drawled phrasing, and wayworn features". Many artists, such as Irving Berlin and Rosemary Clooney, have been traditionally dismissed by fans and critics as merely popular derivatives of true jazz. Giddins finally opens the doors of jazz to include these musicians. In addition, he devotes an entire quarter of this volume to young, active jazz artists. No other book has so boldly expanded the horizon of jazz and its influences.
New York Times Book Review
"The publication of Visions of Jazz is a major event because Gary Giddins is our best jazz critic...[It] is the finest unconventional history of jazz ever written--a brilliant, indispensable book."--Alfred Appel, Jr., The New York Times
"One of our most skillful jazz critics offers a monumental work of ambition...[Giddins] brings an unerring critical intelligence to his analyses of the music and a formidable grasp of music theory and practice...This is an important book, one that any serious student of jazz will want to own."--Kirkus Reviews
"This gigantic book of 79 essays amounts, willy-nilly, to a grand, brilliant history of the most American of arts."--The New York Times Book Review, A Notable Book of 1998
"No American writer has ever written better about music, as richly demonstrated in Giddins' Visions of Jazz. This splendid critical history is classic Giddins: breathtaking in its scope, audacious in its erudition, and profoundly mindful of the connection between biography and art."-- Fortune
"Giddins' eclectic range and meticulous attention to detail are nothing less than astonishing. Visions of Jazz is a landmark destined to occupy a permanent niche on the shelf of essential jazz literature."--Grover Sales, The Los Angeles Times Book Review
- Oxford University Press, USA
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 2.10(d)
Read an Excerpt
1 * Bert Williams/Al Jolson
Almost every aspect of American music during the past seventy years, the modern era, is prefigured in the flurry of activity documented in recording studios between 1923 and 1927. In that intense period of innovation and realignment, musicians of color assumed nearly absolute aesthetic dominance over all the musics yet to be embraced by the academy. Most of our assumptions about rhythm, instrumentation, articulation, improvisation, and presentation were formulated; and for the first time, a significant body of enduring masterworks was preserved on record. While Bessie Smith heralded the image of the blues diva, Ethel Waters, drawing on the same tradition, desentimentalized and refashioned theater songs. King Oliver and Louis Armstrong of New Orleans conjured jazz in Chicago, while Fletcher Henderson and Don Redman, of Georgia and West Virginia, orchestrated it in New York.
By the time Duke Ellington issued modernity's coup de grace with his 1927 triumph at the Cotton Club, four/four rhythms with accents on the downbeats were ubiquitous. It remained only for a few white acolytes to spread the word to the majority population, a mission successfully adopted by associates of Paul Whiteman and Red Nichols--among them Bix Beiderbecke and Pee Wee Russell, Bing Crosby and Mildred Bailey. Never mind that most of them were far removed from the mainstream or that not until the mid-'30s did swing make the world safe for improvisation. That's commerce and sociology. The musical seeds were sown and cultivated in the '20s, and the culture never looked back except to indulge a rather remote nostalgia.
As a result, the premodern era--the first two decades of the century--is lost to neglect, ignorance, and embarrassment. Beclouded as it is with blackface minstrelsy and unseemly ethnic humor, not to mention two-beat rhythms with accents on the up beats, we tend to cringe before that dark, distant, unswinging past. The first generation of jazz critics was as loathe to deal with it as the first generation of rock critics was to track the pop roots of rock and roll, preferring the partial patrimony of blues and country. Each instance perpetuates the idea of the new music as a revolutionary cudgel and denies the evolutionary facts. The distinct commercial nexus of music and comedy that defined minstrelsy and vaudeville and laid the groundwork for movies, records, cabaret, theater, radio, and television is largely unmapped. Of the early musical idioms, the only ones infrequently reexamined above ground are marches, operettas, and especially ragtime.
Bert Williams and Al Jolson are two dominant figures of the dark age who require periodic excavation, an effort rewarded by the enduring pleasures of their undeniably compelling talents. Now, Jolson is famous enough: he is enshrined in cultural history for The Jazz Singer (for several years, he was absurdly associated with that hot new music he could only sentimentalize) and because he lived long enough to enjoy a stunning postwar comeback. After thrilling to his threat "You ain't heard nothin' yet!" in The Jazz Singer and suffering through his lament "Sonny Boy" in The Singing Fool (a dreadful concoction that, benefiting from the first film's publicity and the increased number of theaters wired for sound in 1928, remained the top grossing film until Gone With the Wind), audiences dropped him. Bigger than life on stage, he was strangely stilted, wired, monstrous on screen. It took Larry Parks in The Jolson Story (1946) to do what Jolson couldn't--tone down his feverish theatricality with a stylized elegance suitable to a more intimate medium. With Parks handling the semaphore, Jolson is still found irresistible by children of all ages. Yet the degree to which our own experience of the man himself, in movies or on records, differs from that of his contemporaries, who unanimously proclaimed him the greatest of all entertainers, is evidence that we live in a different world. Indeed, the bizarre figure of Jolson, with outstretched arms and blackened face, falling to bended knee, lips quivering as he recollects old mammy, voice barking out melodies that just will not quit, has become music's counterpart to the mad woman in the attic.
Bert Williams, the patron saint of African American entertainers, has not fared so well, having died in 1922, at forty-seven, though it is unlikely Vitaphone would have been much use to him had he lived. He passed away in a season when a new generation of black performers who didn't wear burnt cork and were ashamed of those who did began to replace him in the affections of younger audiences. In one of those telling coincidences, like Ethel Waters ending her era as a recording artist on the afternoon Billie Holiday began hers, Williams died as Louis Armstrong made his way from New Orleans to Chicago. Armstrong greatly admired Williams, but he was knocked for a loop by Bill Robinson, who beguiled audiences north of Mason-Dixon with his manly grace and natural color. Williams, a light-skinned man, was a whopping success in the nation's most glamorous revue, the Ziegfeld Follies, but the price he paid was the continuance of minstrelsy's blackface caricature.
Williams never had the chance to spearhead his rediscovery. Dimly remembered today, he deserves better. W. C. Fields called him "the funniest man I ever saw," and Eddie Cantor wrote of him, "As a performer, he was close to genius.... Whatever sense of timing I have, I learned from him." Even before Jolson conquered Broadway, the uncanny figure of Williams, in his tattered top hat and tails, almost always covered in cork, held the key to entertainment's mansion, especially in his many years as a Follies headliner, singing, after a fashion, mocking comic monologues. Of the many minstrels on the Great White Way, Williams alone could not rub off every indication of his plight as a well-paid second-class citizen. While white minstrels spoke of the liberating influence of blackface, Williams expressed a loathing for its restraints.
In 1822, an English music-hall performer named Charles Matthews was visiting America, observing Negro music and dialect. He got the idea of blacking himself up and becoming an interpreter of "Ethiopian" melodies. Robert C. Toll, in his 1974 history Blacking Up, pinpoints that moment as the beginning of minstrelsy, the most widespread and influential medium for American popular culture in the nineteenth century.
Minstrelsy is said to have died at the hands of vaudeville, but it was a death in form, not spirit. Its images abound in contemporary life, from the indelible memory of Tim Moore's Kingfish to the caricatures of National Review. The Aunt Jemima-Uncle Ned darkies, solicitous of massa and scornful of the abolitionists who would wreck their joyful plantations, were implanted in the American mind to such an extent that even black minstrels in the antebellum years were expected to enact the familiar stereotypes memorialized by minstrel composers like Stephen Foster. There was triple-edged irony here: minstrelsy provided unprecedented opportunity for gifted black performers, among them Bert Williams and Ma Rainey, but only if they could adapt the ludicrous precepts of white "Ethiopian imitators"; the blacks were so good, so "authentic," that white minstrel troupes were soon put out of business; the minstrel form was then replaced by a new kind of entertainment nourished by Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths who had found their initial success by appropriating black styles like ragtime or the cakewalk.
Williams's firsts are legendary: first major black recording artist (1901); star of the first successful black Broadway musical, In Dahomey (1903); the only black artist to headline the Ziegfeld Follies (1910-19); the first to be featured in a film (1910). Yet little has been written of him (he obfuscated details of his life in interviews), and his art is little recalled, except for one song, "Nobody," which has been revived in tribute to him by several entertainers, including Bing Crosby (on radio and record), Bob Hope (The Seven Little Foys), and Avon Long (Bubbling Brown Sugar). He made about seventy-five records--Victor signed him a year before Caruso. Yet except for a Folkways compilation produced in conjunction with Ann Charters's 1970 biography, Nobody, few records have been available, and they whet the appetite. "The Moon Shines on the Moonshine" (1919) is typical, his rusty baritone emerging with sly animation in a satirical song about prohibition, while the rolling rhythms of "You Can't Get Away from It" (1914) prefigure swing.
By way of explaining his penchant for speaking his songs, Williams claimed to have mistreated his voice when touring in minstrel shows. The lamentable sound of battered 78s combined with his monologist's style makes for tough going. But Columbia and Victor ought to clean up and issue its Williams recordings or give the masters to companies willing to do so. (Most are public domain anyway.) Let's finally hear the original Elder Eatmore sermons that Louis Armstrong imitated in the '30s and a decent recording of the send-up "I Want To Know Where Tosti Went" (which captured the high-versus-low-art interaction of the vaudeville era) and his many other parlando observations on American manners before and after the First World War.
A lively, personal echo of Williams is offered in the extraordinary concert tape of Eddie Cantor's Carnegie Hall Concert, and there hangs a tale. In 1962, Audiofidelity issued an LP that purported to document Cantor's March 21, 1950, Carnegie Hall concert. Thirty years later, Cantor's grandson, Brian Gari, learned that the album was really recorded in a studio in 1954; he then found the concert lacquers from the actual concert in his aunt's closet. Perhaps the live performance was shelved because Cantor occasionally leaps off-mike when singing. But the music is less evocative than the recitation, an expansive and moving reminiscence of a career that began in 1910. Cantor begins by recalling "a much more pleasant day without the H-bomb, Senator McCarthy [the audience titters nervously], or other evil things that want to destroy mankind" and goes immediately into "There's No Business Like Show Business," followed by vivid recollections of Williams and Jolson, along with Fanny Brice, W. C. Fields, and Will Rogers. They were a circle of outsiders and walking oxymorons: blackfaced Negro, Jewish darkie, womanly baby, comical misanthrope, cowboy philosopher. Cantor celebrates Jolson's genius and Williams's humanity, as if they balanced an equation. Cantor roomed with Williams, and three decades later he yearns to strike a blow against prejudice by underscoring a bond of decency. For Williams, genius could never be enough.
In the '70s, after the Broadway opening of Bubbling Brown Sugar, in which Avon Long (best remembered for his Sportin' Life in the first revival of Porgy and Bess; you can see him briefly in the Doris Day vehicle Romance on the High Seas) incarnated Bert Williams, I requested an interview. We met at Sardi's, where he entertained me with anecdotes, reclining in his chair, sculpting elaborate figures in the air with long, expressive fingers--until I asked him whom he had most admired when starting out. "Eddie Cantor," he said. I grimaced and asked if he wasn't offended by the blackface. He sat up and asked heatedly, "Do you think black people are stupid?.... Of course not," I sputtered. "Well," he crowed, resuming his reclining position and fixing me with a cunning smile, "don't you think we can appreciate genius, too?" It was Long who allowed me to look anew at a generation of performers I had reflexively rejected.
Of them, Jolson remains the most difficult to come to terms with, a fact only slightly exacerbated by the opinion of all who knew him that he was a crazed egomaniac. (See Herbert G. Goldman's 1988 biography Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life, for the gory details.) Aldous Huxley went on a rampage against jazz because he believed the hype that configured Jolson as "the jazz singer." Jolson bought the hype, too, and is said to have boasted that he invented black entertainment; he besieged Gershwin for the part of Porgy. And it is no use trying to separate Jolson--the enduringly hypnotic performer who wears down your defenses with a nearly violent energy, daring you to remain indifferent--from the traditions of burnt cork. He was emboldened and genuinely inspired by the black mask. Even in his '30s movies, made long after his career had peaked, he is never more electrifying or natural than when playing black.
In Jolson, theatrical show-biz schmaltz was mated with an irresistible vitality--maudlin sentiment was the flip side of snappy eye-rolling rhythms. He had much in common with Elvis Presley: each came from lower-class, culturally alienated environments (immigrant Jewish and southern poor white); each was something of a rebel (Jolson, the son of a cantor, left home in adolescence to travel the country singing in music halls and Presley, also from a religious family, found himself in Negro blues); each was an obsessive mother lover; each chose to live in isolation at the peak of his career. In Feel Like Going Home, Elvis's contemporary Jerry Lee Lewis, tells Peter Guralnick, "I loved Al Jolson, I still got all of his records. Even back when I was a kid I listened to him all the time." Elvis's first record for the Sun label, "I Love You Because," was a thinly disguised rewrite of a melody that rebellious Asa Yoelson sings repeatedly during the first half hour of The Jolson Story (released when Presley was eleven), a song called "When You Were Sweet Sixteen." What would Jolson have made of a white boy, with a pompadour as high as a Negro conk, bumping like a stripper and singing "Heartbreak Hotel" on national television? He probably would have been a lot less shocked than many of his contemporaries. For Jolson's pelvis swiveled much the same way, as can be seen in his performance of "Toot Toot Tootsie" in The Jazz Singer.
Bert Williams performed in blackface at least as often as Jolson and considered it a vulgar, repressive disguise, a racist formality from which he could not escape. Nor could the society. Minstrelsy was a commonplace in the movie musicals of the `40s; in the '50s, a vogue for recreating genuine minstrel shows was reflected in theater and on records. When the nostalgic pleasure for minstrelsy could no longer be justified, the flag of cultural scholarship was raised as the new excuse. During the presidential election of 1992, it was reported that thirty years earlier President Bush's brother Jonathan had hoped to "revive" the minstrel era, combining "Negro talent along with the blackface components." As recently as 1989, news circulated of a producer's desire to mount a Broadway musical based on the apogee of Negro stereotypes, Amos 'n' Andy. How can one overstate the importance of minstrelsy in coming to grips with America's racialist past and present? In the most demotic of the popular arts, a theatrical tradition was born in town and country alike based on the premise of racial disdain, in which parodic intent was confused with sincere imitation and in which many of the finest practitioners were African American. Many celebrated minstrels thought they were playing Negro roles: Mr. Bones and Jim Crow as alternatives to Othello or Aida, all of them Ethiopian (exotic) types. The most ardent defenders of the idiom compare minstrelsy with commedia dell'arte, and they have a point if one overlooks the dehumanizing force of racial mockery.
Still, for some, for Jolson, it unleashed a core vitality, underscoring what Goldman calls a "mysterious, somewhat macabre appeal," as in the whiny madness of his 1912 recording "That Lovin' Traumerai." Driven but stiff, reluctant to lower his wattage to the requirements of a recording booth, he was a very different performer in the beginning (a tenor and not the baritone he became) than the warmhearted singer of his postwar comeback. Jolson may have little to do with jazz, though his "When the Grown Up Ladies Act Like Babies" (1914) is undeniably jazzy, complete with vocal breaks. But he helped create the singer as matinee idol, popularizing the vernacular emotionalism and rhythmic zeal that underscore so much of what was to follow. His forty years in front of microphones (detailed in Larry F. Kiner and Philip R. Evans's Al Jolson: A Bio-Discography, 1992) defines a huge and peculiarly inbred repertoire, ranging from the traveling minstrel show to theaters, then broadening to film and radio, expanding its trappings every step. He was abetted by the songwriting factory that preceded--in musical sophistication if not chronology--the fabled generation of Berlin, Kern, Rodgers, and Porter. The best writers of that predawn era were originals who had the zeitgeist by the tail: Walter Donaldson, DeSylva-Brown-Henderson, James Monaco, Kalmar and Ruby. Like Jolson, they mapped out a genesis of sentimental debauchery ("keep away from bootleg hooch/when you're on a spree/take good care of yourself/you belong to me"), mother worship, and limitless optimism. This was the big bang of show business excess, vulgarity as a measure of our native wit.
2 * Hank Jones/Charlie Haden (Come Sunday)
Mendelssohn's oratorical music, especially the Lobgesang Symphony, hangs precariously in nineteenth-century religious repertory, in part because it so clearly reveals the convert to Christianity keeping faith with Jewish themes. His hymns have it both ways, rendering ambiguous mention unto the son but reserving the full measure of praise for the father, who is exalted specifically for the gifts of enlightenment and liberation and not just for being merciful and glorious. Mendelssohn would never have heard Negro spirituals, which weren't performed in Europe until thirty years after his death, but surely he would have responded to the parity between the Old and New Testaments they embody. Here was an entire people claimed by Christendom who needed no prompting to see that King Jesus the redeemer had better not ride too far without General Moses the liberator.
"Go Down Moses," an obvious example, would suit any seder and, as a piece of music, beats the Passover anthem "Da-yenu" by a country mile or a desert sea. Considering how indifferently Jews, who practically invented the modern pop song, have fared with hymns, one wonders why they haven't borrowed from other ex-slaves with a cannier ear for the pentatonic scale. In pop, of course, they have. One of Jerome Kem's breakthrough songs, "Look for the Silver Lining," written for but dropped from a 1919 show and resurrected a year later in Sally, is often praised for its hymnlike melody; according to his biographer, Gerald Bordman, the comparison pleased Kern, who "loved to play hymns and hoped his music reflected his pleasure." That he had a particular hymn in mind has not been suggested, to my knowledge, but with the 1995 release of Steal Away: Spirituals, Hymns and Folk Song (Verve), a magically affecting album by Hank Jones and Charlie Haden, it is difficult to believe he didn't enjoy more than a fleeting acquaintance with "My Lord, What a Morning."
But then the relationship between the sacred and secular in American music has always been shadowy, rarely developing beyond an assortment of adaptations that reduces the spiritual to a kind of fuel. It provided the basis for blues at the turn of the century, for the antiphonal orchestrations of the swing era, for various soul movements in jazz at midcentury. If sacred music, black and white, has inspired composers as diverse as Kern, Duke Ellington, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and Virgil Thompson, it has also generated much of the breakout pop that followed the war, from Louis Jordan's choir-driven call-and-response novelties to Ray Charles's substitution of "baby" for "Jesus" and all that followed.
Yet where are the great or not-so-great liturgical works that draw on that perennial idiom--where are the gospel-derived tries at a Lobgesang, let alone a Missa Solemnis or B Minor Mass? For all the countless jazz church services, including several outsized works ranging from Ellington's ecumenical sacred concerts to Dave Brubeck's mass and oratorio, the pickings are improbably slim. Ellington successfully introduced the concept of pageantry in his church music, built on the idea that instrumental virtuosity was a gift from God that, suitably displayed, would serve as a reverent offering in return. But Ellington's three religious works are structurally open-ended, with old and new pieces tailored to specific personalities, and we have yet to experience how that music might be reconstituted into a compelling canvas in the absence of his own magnetism. Perhaps the most fervent work of religious devotion in jazz is John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, and that, too, seems inseparable from the musician who created it.
For all their incalculable influence, spirituals remain most potent in their purest form. A little religion goes a long way in the secular world, about one "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" (1958, Mahalia Jackson) or "Oh Happy Day" (1969, Edwin Hawkins Singers) per decade on the pop charts. Which is one reason Steal Away works as well as it does: shorn of lyrics and pyrotechnics, it mines a program of melodies--including some of the most familiar in all of music ("Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot")--with a quiet, studied lyricism that relocates them in the secular world in general and the jazz world in particular. I don't believe anyone made a record before quite like Haden's and Jones's, though it is bound to remind some people of the boom in spirituals in the '50s.
The album's subtitle is significant: the respectable idiom of the spiritual needs to be distinguished from the raucous tradition of gospel performance, though both presumed themselves to be under eternal attack by the devil's music. The archetype of the rebellious son who rejects his parents' religious calling for the Great White Way was popularized as a Jewish fable in the '20s, but it was more lastingly a black story (the movie St. Louis Blues, a purported biography of W. C. Handy, is really an all-Negro version of The Jazz Singer), where imprecations to separate the two have never completely faded. In the '50s, bluesman Big Bill Broonzy claimed to be scandalized by Ray Charles. A few years later, Little Richard made a compelling gospel album when he forsook rock and roll and then returned to what little Mammon he had at his disposal, but he couldn't do both--he couldn't do nationally what, say, Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing could do provincially, barnstorming the Southwest of the late '20s, playing buckets of blood Saturday night and churches Sunday morning.
The more genteel tradition of spirituals and hymns had a different sort of pedigree. From the time the Fisk Jubilee Singers began concertizing in the 1870s in the North and then in Europe, the "sorrow song," in W. E. B. DuBois's phrase, became associated with the dignified Negro and his low estate. As great trained voices like those of Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson performed spirituals in recitals, the political solemnity was underscored. (At a political benefit featuring Robeson and Charlie Parker, Robeson sang "Water Boy," and Parker, who grasped the limits of solemnity, came onstage with a glass of water.) But the liberal pieties associated with spirituals quickly gave way in the `40s, and more so in the '50s, to something far more patronizing.
After years of white as well as black performers harmonizing Negro hymns and work songs with anthropological brio, the songs began to take on a childlike and sometimes childish character. No longer the utopian dreams of tolerance and justice, they were co-opted by the right to symbolize the conviction that the American dilemma was nothing more than some Swedish egghead's paranoia. Until Louis Armstrong got angry and told Eisenhower to take a flyer into the fiery pit, he and Mahalia Jackson made middlebrows feel comfortable about their melting-pot pieties. When Armstrong appeared on one of the great kitsch album covers of the '50s, for his Decca collection of spirituals, few recalled his earlier recording of "Goin' to Shout All over God's Heav'n," in which the choir sang about "hebben" and Armstrong adamantly growled, "hea-VEN, hea-VEN." The folk movement of the early '60s brought renewed interest in spirituals, but with an unmistakable air of noblesse oblige. Nearly twenty years before, in the musical no one would produce on Broadway (Jump for Joy), Ellington wrote, "Green Pastures is just a technicolor movie." Yet as Kennedy took office, white elementary school teachers continued to declare Green Pastures an authentic portrait of black culture.
Maybe it was inevitable that jazz musicians would rediscover the repertory of spirituals, given the hard bop revival and its original impetus in church-derived chords and backbeats, and the '90s produced several examples. Nat Adderley, brother of Cannonball, the patron saint of the soul-hymn movement, issued two entertaining albums to mark the connection: Good Company (Challenge), with Cannonball's "Sermonette" and Some of altoist Antonio Hart's best recorded work up to that date, and the more spirited We Remember Cannon (In + Out), with Nat's own "Work Song" and the increasingly resolute altoist Vincent Herring. Herring also appears on Carl Allen's Testimonial (Atlantic) with an all-star contingent of newcomers, including Cyrus Chesnut, Nicholas Payton (more assured here than on his own Verve debut), Mark Whitfield, Christian McBride, and Kevin Mahogany. It's a well-played, conventional set that derives its distinction from themes loosely associated with Sunday morning, including Ellington's supreme contribution to the American hymnal, "Come Sunday." Short of outright parody--for example, Dizzy Gillespie's "Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac"--hard bop is one way to cut the deacon down to size.
Steal Away is something different. Charlie Haden, whose many previous recordings have an autobiographical edge, produced the album, undoubtedly recalling his family band apprenticeship in the Bible Belt. His looming, sonorous, shivery bass tone always seems to have a hellhound on its trail and so works perfectly here. But the more particular triumph belongs to Hank Jones. In a career of more than fifty years' duration, this stands as one of his most seductive yet understated recordings. It's hard to imagine another pianist pulling it off. Only a musician of exceptional maturity would be inclined to hold his technique at bay in theme statements that draw their power from basic harmonies, foursquare rhythms, and a stately resolve to honor the unadorned ingenuity of simple melodies. With his inimitable touch, ringing the keys like chimes, and his cunning use of dissonance and altered changes, he gets to the core of each piece, though the real magic is often in the transition to the second chorus, when he swings into time for improvisations that sustain the initial aura while probing a still deeper level.
The material is fearlessly obvious, with only a few less well-known titles among the very famous ones, which include "Danny Boy," an ingenious choice that recalls the many links between Irish American and African American music in the nineteenth century, and "Wade in the Water," a certifiable hard bop chestnut. "Abide with Me," recorded by Monk in solidarity with the William Henry Monk who wrote it, is heard in a medley that concludes with "Amazing Grace." They even reclaim "We Shall Overcome." The unadorned first chorus sounds like something a rural church pianist might intone on an old upright, but after a brief bass transition, Jones embarks on a solo that reminds us that we're dealing with a musician of transcendent worldliness, modernist cool, and dry wit.
This isn't one of those albums that wants to get your flesh all bumpy with unbridled hosannahs. It's subtle and sober without being dusty and politic, solemn but never somber, performed with a purity beyond the reach of the kind of pianist who can't resist flashing over the keys to cover a lapse in thought. It's gentle, deep, and often starkly beautiful, and it underscores a fundamental ingredient in the spiritual life of jazz.
3 * Louis Armstrong/Mills Brothers (Signifying)
Just as Civil War battles and the politics of Reconstruction are rehearsed ceaselessly by buffs and historians, the power plays between slave and master have also remained vestigially alive at the end of the twentieth century, with this difference: they are secretly preserved, chiefly in popular songs handed down through generations increasingly deaf to their meaning. Subverted into neutralized meal for children (like much nineteenth-century American literature, for that matter), those songs, which once gladdened and even changed people's hearts, are now presumed to be opaque if not downright nonsensical. They are as invisible as the black bards who wrote so many of them. On the other hand, Stephen Foster, whose music embodied the widespread belief that former slaves spent the rest of their lives longing for the resumption of slavehood, remains a popular brand name, like Uncle Ben's and Aunt Jemima's.
One of the first songs I can remember learning well enough to sing was "Jimmy Crack Corn," or "The Blue-Tail Fly" (its real name); not for twenty years or so did I realize it wasn't a nonsense song, a kids' song, but an expression of glee at a slaveowner's death. What makes the song chilling is that massa isn't made out to be wicked; he isn't characterized at all, except as massa--reason enough to crack corn in celebration of his demise. A blue-tail fly got him, as the singer details in a series of verses, each followed by the chorus of merriment ("Jimmy crack corn and I don't care/My massa's gone away"). We don't know for sure where he's gone until the end, when his epitaph is sung. The song was popular in minstrel shows of the 1840s and has been handed down for a hundred fifty years, transformed into a campfire song for white middle-class kids. Perhaps "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" will be rediscovered in the next century as a cautionary ballad about the need to put on your galoshes.
These thoughts are prompted by listening to the long-neglected sides, eleven in all, recorded by the Mills Brothers and Louis Armstrong for Decca between 1937 and 1940. The most reverberant are two numbers originally released together on a very successful 78 recorded at their first encounter--a politically astute response to the pastoralism that became rife in the recording industry of the '30s and continued into the early '60s. In the long, irreverent history of black performers signifying attitudes that went over the heads of white audiences, this is one of the most ironic pop records ever released. The songs were James A. Bland's "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" (1878) and Benjamin R. Hanby's "Darling Nellie Gray" (1856). Part of the disc's power lies not in the talents of the performers, but in how they were perceived by audiences. The Mills Brothers, the most enduringly successful male quartet in American pop music and one of the first black groups to win international acceptance, made the leap from tent shows to New York via a triumphant radio stint in Cincinnati in 1929. Soon they were touring the country, recording prolifically (teaming up with such white stars as Bing Crosby, the Boswell Sisters, and Al Jolson), and appearing in films and on network radio. With only one change in personnel (brother John, Jr., died and was replaced by their father), they recorded a chain of hits over thirty years, then kept on as a trio for another fifteen, after John, Sr., retired at age seventy-four. Their biggest hit, the weirdly fetishist "Paper Doll," was the third biggest hit of the `40s, after "White Christmas" and "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer" (and was later mugged in a noted essay by the semanticist turned right-wing bureaucrat, S. I. Hayakawa). They had velvety voices, impeccable diction, dreamy harmonies, supple time, and--especially in their early, more jazz-oriented years--a remarkable gimmick: they imitated instruments (trumpet, trombone, sax, tuba) so well that they subtitled their act Four Boys and a Guitar to stress the cleverness of their mimicry. When they muted their vocal brass effects, their riffs suggested the Ellington band. But straight as they were honest, they allowed their later work to be subsumed in a blandness that bespoke too many chic nightclubs and hacked-out arrangements.
Louis Armstrong, on the other hand, was always a renegade, even when he acceded to the same idiocies in material and setting. He could telegraph with a growl or a rolling of his eyes his independence, confidence, and security. If the Mills Brothers were heroes in the black community for their talent and success, Armstrong (whose music influenced theirs, as it did every black band and vocal group to come along in the '30s) was venerated for all that plus an indomitable will and irreverence. As the embodiment of jazz, he made jazz the embodiment of individual signifying; the singer, not the song, was what counted, or as Trummy Young used to chant, "'Taint What You Do (It's the Way That You Do It)." There's no better example than the material Armstrong rendered with the brothers Mills.
By 1937, seventy-two years after the Civil War, songs of the nineteenth century had long since become a staple of recording sessions not only because they appeared to tame black performers into a new kind of servility--singing pro-slave lyrics for liberal record producers on the grounds that they were true folk material--but because they were free, having escaped into public domain. One might reasonably assume that the lyrics of "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" and "Darling Nellie Gray" had lost their bite if not their meaning, and indeed no one seems to have commented on the strangeness of black performers recording them, of black and white audiences buying them, of what Armstrong did with them. Yet though the lyrics of both songs are as explicit as those of "The Blue-Tail Fly," I haven't been able to find a single reference to them in the past sixty years of pop or jazz commentary. This despite the fact that it was a major seller, putting the Mills Brothers back on the charts after a troubled three years during which John, Jr., died. Its popularity contributed to the state of Virginia's decision to adopt "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" as the official state song in 1940, a decision hotly contested in 1997.
What kind of song is it? A nostalgic minstrel expression of mourning for the Old South, for massa and the plantation. The melody is hauntingly beautiful, and the structure--thirty-two bars, AABA--surprisingly modern. The Mills Brothers sing it exactly as written, including the line "There's where this old darkie's heart does long to go" and the stupefying release:
There's where I labored so hard for dear ol' massa
Day after day in the fields of yellow corn
No place on earth do I love more sincerely
Then old Virginny, the state where I was born.
Armstrong, whose first entrance serves to introduce a scat figure that propels the piece immediately into double time, attacks the song with creative relish, but he makes a couple of seemingly casual changes in the offensive lines that make all the difference in the world. In the first case, he sings (twice, both times accommodating the loss of sibilance with a rhythmic adjustment), "There's where the [not `this'] old darkie's heart longs to go." In the release, he changes "dear ol' massa" to "old master," carefully enunciating the consonants. (When Ray Charles recorded the song in 1960, he obviated the problem by changing the first line to "That's where this heart of mine yet longs to go" and omitted the release, replacing it with a new chorus about finding freedom in death.) Perhaps Armstrong's most able signifying comes at the end of the first eight bars of his thirty-two-bar solo, an unmistakable trumpet call--to freedom in life. If the flip side had been a similar piece or an ordinary ballad, the record would--despite Armstrong's saves--have limited meaning. But "Darling Nellie Gray" was one of the most powerful abolitionist songs of the 1850s; published only four years after Uncle Tom's Cabin, it is widely credited with changing people's minds on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Only sixteen bars and five lines long, crooned nostalgically by the Mills Brothers, then swung with candid effervescence by Armstrong, it is a Kentucky slave's lament for his lover, sold or traded like a prize sow: "Oh, my poor Nellie Gray/They have taken you away." If the choice of material alone didn't counter the sentiment of the A side, the job was done by Armstrong: his tender solo; utterly engaged vocal, made the more dramatic by syncopations (especially in the second of two surviving takes); caressing, virtuoso fills behind the quartet; interpolated remark before the close ("Now, boys, what do you know about this?"); second chorus alteration of the line "I'm sitting by the river and I'm weepin' all the day" to "I'm sitting by the river and I'm all in a shiver"; and extended scat cadenza.
The whole endeavor is heightened by the irony of authorship. The composer of the Virginia state song, the celebrated minstrel and tunesmith James Bland (he wrote "In the Evening By the Moonlight" and "Oh Dem Golden Slippers" as well), was black. "Darling Nellie Gray" was composed by a white twenty-two-year-old minister, Benjamin Hanby, to aid the abolitionists. His tune spurred heavy black sales of the record in the summer of 1937, but did anyone comment back then on the curiosities of the disc? It's difficult to know what contemporary black reviewers thought since black newspapers have yet to be fully gleaned for the valuable anthologies they could undoubtedly produce. White critics, then as now, paid it no mind. Jazz critics hated the idea of Armstrong working with a silky pop group, which is one reason the sessions have been incompletely reissued in the United States, while that strange breed of folklorists who trekked into the Alabamy veldt in search of folk Negroes ignored city ones as ersatz. Yet most of the Armstrong-Mills material is uncommonly interesting: three Irving Berlin gems; a wry novelty about the WPA's impact on the Puritan work ethic ("Sit Down and Smoke While You Joke, It's Okay--the WPA"); Don Redman's gently lubricious "Cherry"; the scat-filled call to dancers, "Boog It," with its descriptive verse ("You do like shinin' a window/But you ain't got no window/So you just picture a window/and Boog It!--slow and easy"); and most pungent of all, Stephen Foster's outrageous and eternal "The Old Folks at Home."
They did the Foster song at the same session as the other minstrel tunes and coupled it with the turn-of-the-century ballad, "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree." With a few alterations, Armstrong could distance himself from "Carry Me Back"; with his natural elan, he could restore the emotion to "Darling Nellie." What in heaven's name could he do with Foster's recalcitrant song, in which free darkies sadly roam the dreary world, "longin' for the old plantation and for the old folks at home," except burlesque the hell out of it? No sooner does the quartet croon it straight than he suddenly turns the performance into a mock church service, entering like a deacon ("Now brothers!"), impaling every phrase on the precision of his caricature: "That's where my heart turns, Yowsah!...Know one thing? My heart am still longin' for the old plantation...Hallelujah, hallelujah...Oh, darkies!" He ends speaking, "Well, looka here, we are far away from home," and adds with devastating menace, "Yeah, man." Rasped with implacable finality, that phrase buries the song and the maudlin pastoralism that kept it alive. Few whites, however, in or out of the academy, wanted to hear what old Deacon Satchmo was signifying. Here once again was evidence that, as Pope wrote of Homer, Armstrong's art "is like a copious nursery which contains the seeds and first productions of every kind, out of which those who followed him have but selected some particular plants."
What People are saying about this
Meet the Author
Gary Giddins is the jazz critic for the Village Voice. He lives in New York City.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >