The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings

The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings

by Ben Ratliff

Paperback(First Edition)



A connoisseur's tour through the great American art form

A Love Supreme. Miles Ahead. Brubeck Time. Yardbird Suite. The Sidewinder. For newcomers just beginning their library of recordings, and for longtime fans looking to deepen their understanding, New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff offers an assertive, deeply knowledgeable collector's guide, full of opinions and insights on the one hundred greatest recorded works of jazz.

From the rare early recordings of Louis Armstrong, through Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman's seminal Carnegie Hall concert, and the lions of the bebop era, to the transformative Miles Davis and several less-canonized artists, such as Chano Pozo, Jimmy Giuffre, and Greg Osby, who have made equally significant contributions, Ratliff places each recording in the greater context and explains its importance in the development of the form. Taken together, these original essays add up to a brief history of jazz, highlighting milestone events, legendary players, critical trends, and artistic breakthroughs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805070682
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 11/28/2002
Series: The New York Times Essential Library
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.36(w) x 10.44(h) x 0.68(d)

About the Author

Ben Ratliff is the jazz critic at The New York Times. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two sons.

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A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings


Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8050-7068-0

Chapter One


The Creators of Jazz

(AVID 702, 2 CDS)

Nick LaRocca, cornet; Eddie Edwards, Emile Christian, trombone; Larry Shields, Artie Seaberg, clarinet; Don Parker, soprano saxophone; Henry W. Ragas, J. Russel Robinson, Harry Vanicelli, piano; Tony Sbarbaro, drums. Recorded 1917-1936

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band-and its leader, Nick LaRocca, an Italian-American cornet player from New Orleans-has functioned as a trickster element in jazz history. It has felt the hot wind of both racial and aesthetic shame, and it has been defended as something greater than it was. But its initial records provided the start jazz deserved: something irresolutely poised between art and the low end of popular culture. Its songs have been among the most controversial ever recorded, and they still start disagreements.

"Livery Stable Blues," recorded for Victor on February 26, 1917, was the first jazz record. It was the result of a cult of celebrity set in motion by a successful run by the band at Reisenweber's Café in New York City-a booking made through the suggestion of Al Jolson. LaRocca was a great advance man; he came from New Orleans, where self-mythographersare bred by the thousand, and he was part of the same culture that produced Louis Armstrong and King Oliver and Freddie Keppard. He saw parade bands, opera (while working as an electrician in the opera house), and ragtime bands. He wasn't the first at anything, artistically speaking; he was simply involved in a music that was growing, and he saw a potential trend, with his own band as the trendsetter.

From then on, he sold himself, hard, as a creator, and the newspapers liked the story. Given the poor documentation of New Orleans jazz before the 1920s, as well as the unlikelihood that a black man's word would be taken seriously by a newspaper reporter of any influence, few were around to disprove him. Annotators like Brian Rust-who wrote the liner notes for this reissue of all the ODJB's recordings-have relied on the cream-rises-to-the-top theory to prove that the band was, in fact, the best of all playing in that idiom at the time. Rust is English, and white American scholars since the civil rights era have vociferously claimed the opposite: LaRocca ripped off better musicians who were black (particularly Freddie Keppard, who may have been too proud and paranoid to record his own music) and claimed originator's credit. Then there's the history of objecting to the ODJB on pure aesthetic grounds. In 1924, Paul Whiteman, presenting his minihistory of jazz at Carnegie Hall, which wound up with George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, started the evening with "Livery Stable Blues," exaggerating the corn pone in it; he described it to the audience as "an example of the depraved past from which jazz has risen."

More recently, through the work of entirely different kinds of historians-Richard Sudhalter and Allen Lowe are two-the artistic value of the ODJB has been somewhat restored. Partially, they found virtues to the music in and of itself; they also gave secondhand support, citing the fact that Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke went on record admiring LaRocca's playing. (Sidney Bechet and Rex Stewart, on the other hand, wrote about LaRocca and his band with disdain; their attitude may well have been tempered with ad hominem disgust, for LaRocca was probably the worst racist in the history of jazz, given to blanket condescension toward black musicians.)

Historians born after 1950 have added more fuel: some have drawn parallels between the short histories of the ODJB and the Sex Pistols, a band that was a similarly blinding supernova of self-promotion and questionable (or, rather, questioned) talent.

I believe in the virtues of the ODJB. They hadn't been together very long when they made their first recordings, and in a few years they progressed from crude to streamlined; but I hear the crude state and the smooth state as equally interesting. I find the music itself repetitive and structurally limited, but it was hard-edged and anxious, a marked distinction from what we can assume to be the more soulful black New Orleans jazz of the same period, as exemplified by Kid Ory's first recordings in 1922. There is originality in this weird drive, and clarinetist Larry Shields-who can be heard prominently, benefiting from the practice of placing the cornetist well away from the recording horn-has a pulsating, fervid, nearly out-of-control sound.

"Livery Stable Blues"-originally titled "Barnyard Blues"-is wild, raucous, and pure show business, complete with instruments imitating barnyard sounds. The band advertised itself as "untuneful harmonists playing peppery melodies"; LaRocca didn't read music and used that fact in his publicity. It is squeaky-wheel art, calculated to shock and delight. But it is also smart, and if you subtract Tony Sbarbaro's untasteful brass-band volume, you're left with the kind of lilting New Orleans street rhythm that has ties to Brazilian samba-school drumming.

As with Shields, it can take a while for Sbarbaro, who thumps through these early recordings with little sensitivity, to become palatable; at first he's merely obnoxious (and the precursor of Gene Krupa's kind of bass-drum obnoxiousness). These can be lumpy performances. "Ostrich Walk," to cite another example, begins as rowdily as possible, with Sbarbaro simply gunning out the eighth-note rhythm of the horn introduction rather than presenting any more sophisticated rhythmic idea.

How curious it is that by 1936, when the band re-formed and cut six more songs, Sbarbaro should turn out to be among the most advanced musicians in the group. But such surprises make sense, given the feinting and posturing and japing and, as a matter of fact, art making that pervade these records.

Chapter Two


The Quintessence

(FREMAUX 220, 2 CDS)

Joe "King" Oliver, cornet; Louis Armstrong, cornet, slide whistle; Tick Gray, cornet; Honore Dutrey, Ed Atkins, Bob Shoffner, Kid Ory, James Archey, trombone; Johnny Dodds, Jimmie Noone, Ernest Elliott, clarinet; Paul "Stump" Evans, C-melody saxophone; Albert Nicholas, Billy Paige, Barney Bigard, Omer Simeon, Arville Harris, saxophones; Charlie Jackson, bass saxophone; Lil Hardin, Luis Russell, Clarence Williams, piano; Arthur "Bud" Scott, Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Bert Coff, Cyrus St. Clair, tuba; Eddie Lang, guitar, violin; Alberto Socarras, flute; Warren "Baby" Dodds, Paul Barbarin, drums; Justin Ring, percussion; Richard M. Jones, Georgia Taylor, Lizzie Miles, Texas Alexander, vocals. Recorded 1923-1928

The mists of jazz history don't really part until the early twenties. So we must accept on faith the information-consistently reiterated by eyewitnesses-that hearing the Joe "King" Oliver band, in the early 1920s, even before it was joined by young Louis Armstrong, was an epiphanic experience, the sort of thing for which a new descriptive vocabulary had to be invented. These recordings start in 1923, when the band had been playing with Armstrong for a year, and, though they are powerful, they suffer from two things: the crude techniques of early record making; and the necessarily disorienting effect of the recording process on a fundamentally "live" working band.

The Oliver band set a new standard for imposing professionalism, tempering its force with great control. Its records show the first significant instance of improvised form-cuing systems, the practice that has developed through eighty years of jazz, like the curriculum of an invisible academy.

King Oliver's groups prided themselves on their breaks, those four-bar lacunae placed toward the ends of tunes, at the height of their emotional crescendos, where the soloists write their signatures in the moving medium. As the recordings in this anthology proceed, the breaks grow more inventive. At the Lincoln Gardens in Chicago, where the band established a much-noticed residency, nobody seemed to figure out how Oliver and Armstrong negotiated what they would play together in these little fissured moments, amid the rush of the music. "I don't know how they knew what was coming up next," said drummer George Wettling, who was just old enough to see the band in the early twenties. "But they would play those breaks and never miss." They couldn't merely have reproduced the exact arrangement of a record; none of the recordings, made for Gennett, OKeh, Columbia, and Vocalion, went beyond three minutes and fifteen seconds, and it was said that the Oliver band would play "High Society Rag" at the Lincoln Gardens for forty minutes, like a proto-Grateful Dead.

Making jazz is a kind of acting. In movies, actors choreograph chases and sex scenes. Musicians often improvise or communicate to one another some preconceived routines; it often seems surprising, especially when there's a good deal of fresh, unpreconceived improvisation going on around it. A great example of this occurs at two moments in this collection's "Snake Rag," where the horns-Oliver, Armstrong, Honore Dutrey, and Johnny Dodds-rage through a collective improvisation. Suddenly there's a two-bar break in unison played by the cornets; they lift out of the tangle with a single hot phrase. Armstrong later talked about how this was done: Oliver would feed him a cue, a little phrase, during his improvisation in the preceding chorus.

Compared to the Duke Ellington recordings made for Columbia a little more than four years later, these are primitive. Armstrong, because of the force of his projection, had to stand alone, separated from the rest of the band by twelve or fifteen feet; he's a faint presence except on the breaks. (These were recorded in one take, of course, long before the advent of postproduction mixing; imagine the difficulty of shuttling quickly up to the recording horn for those eight beats then fading back fifteen feet.)

Clarinetist Johnny Dodds is of particular interest here, too. He is technically as perfect a player as there was in jazz at the time, and his solos are light-toned, floating, and emotional. (Hear him in "Alligator Hop," which features him all the way through: he adds startling tongue-slaps toward the end of his final solo.) He had a pure, unsentimental style, even when surrounded by self-conscious corniness, and his sound counterbalanced the hard punch of the trumpets.

The band represented on the first disc of The Quintessence basically holds fast to Oliver's Lincoln Gardens group; on the second disc, there are many variations. Included are some vocal numbers with Lizzie Miles, a "classic blues" (i.e., urbane, not rough-hewn) singer whose archaic style would imminently be blasted out of relevance by Louis Armstrong's first vocal performances. There are some quartet blues with guitarist Eddie Lang; there's also a cornet-piano duet with Jelly Roll Morton, "Tom Cat," where we hear some of Oliver's genius with mutes in the horn's timbral variation.

Starting in 1926, Oliver took up with a group he called the Dixie Syncopaters, and the group sound changed entirely with the addition of a saxophone section; jazz was beginning to change, and Oliver needed to be in the vanguard. It was a way of fattening up the sound without necessarily giving those added saxophonists much that was interesting to do, and as a result the internal balance in the music got thrown off. Yet this new music sounds more present in the improved recording quality, and you can get a better sense of Oliver's trumpet-playing power in his solos in songs such as "Jackass Blues," "Sugar Foot Stomp," and "Wa Wa Wa." During the first two, he continued to dine out on the hard, high, simple rift-phrases of "Dippermouth Blues" from three years before; in the third, Oliver and the nine musicians around him made a masterpiece. The arrangements themselves aren't brilliant-comparing them even to early Ellington is a cruel exercise. But in the variation of timbre and texture from one section to another {this is a piece cut into many sections), an awful lot goes on within two and a half minutes.

Armstrong, by 1927, was long gone, making his own records in Chicago under the name Louis Armstrong's Hot Five. His playing would far outstrip Oliver's. But without Oliver's style and group sound, perhaps there would have been no Armstrong.

Chapter Three


The Essential Bessie Smith


Bessie Smith, vocals; Ernest Elliot, Buster Bailey, Coleman Hawkins, clarinet; Clarence Williams, Irving Johns, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Porter Grainger, Steve Stevens, Buck Washington, piano; Fred Longshaw, piano and reed organ; Louis Armstrong, Joe Smith, Ed Allen, Louis Metcalfe, cornet; Frank Newton, trumpet; Charlie Green, Jimmy Harrison, Joe Williams, Jack Teagarden, trombone; Garvin Bushell, alto saxophone; Chu Berry, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Robert Robbins, violin; Buddy Christian, Charlie Dixon, banjo; Eddie Lang, Bobby Johnson, guitar; Billy Taylor, bass; Cyrus St. Clair, tuba; The Bessemer Singers, vocals; Floyd Casey, drums. Recorded 1923-1933

Bessie Smith's position in jazz history has been tenuous, because of the material she sang. Fair enough; her songs were blues, and even if her style wasn't blues from the country, it bore the mannerisms of blues singing more than it did what we consider, historically, to be those of jazz singing. But she represents the last point of this blurriness; after her came jazz singing.

You'd do well to make room for her, given the musicians who made appearances on her records and given her trajectory toward a jazz sense of dynamics, a jazz disposition. The list of instrumentalists on this collection, which extends from the beginning of her career to beyond the point of its slide into the Great Depression's commercial oblivion, represents an impressive portion of jazz's great figures in the twenties and early thirties.

All reports say that Smith, who had previously been a touring member of Ma Rainey's Rabbit Foot Minstrels, was nervous about making her first recordings. But five months after her initial sessions on Columbia, on "Jail-House Blues" she radiates confidence. She releases vowels with such force that it's sometimes hard to make out the sense of her long, stretched-out "the"s and "in"s and "here"s and "you"s. Her rhythm and rubbery intonation on the repeated first line-"thirty days in jail with my back turned to the wall"-are simply awesome.


Excerpted from Jazz by BEN RATLIFF Copyright © 2002 by The New York Times Company. Excerpted by permission.
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