Monday, April 9, 2012

The 78 That Changed The World

In a few days, on April 12th, the Southside Aces will be playing a whole night at the Eagles Aerie #34 dedicated to the music of Louis Armstrong. There is a particular song that will be the centerpiece of the night. I’ll tell you about that, but first let’s go back 86 years to April of 1926 in Chicago. Carroll Dickerson led the band at the Sunset CafĂ©. Drummer Zutty Singleton and pianist Earl Hines were already in that band, and Hines convinced Louis Armstrong to join them instead of King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators, who were working across the street at the Plantation. Eventually, convinced of their own brilliance, the three of them left Dickerson. Louis summed it up, “After all—we were the ‘Top Notch’ players in Chicago in those days.” 

They referred to themselves as the Unholy Three. They formed a pact that they would, as Earl Hines said, “stick together and not play for anyone unless the three of us were hired.” In striking out on this path, they would provide yet another example of the stereotype of genius musicians being terrible businessmen. Expenses such as a year lease in a South Side Hall gave them a panhandler’s income. Another hall rental for a dance led to an incident with a drunken man, wanted by the police, who brandished his gun at the end of the first set scaring all the customers away. Their belief in themselves still far outshined their business acumen, but practical matters such as eating and avoiding bankruptcy finally shoved reality down their hungry throats. Zutty and Louis went back to Dickerson without Earl, breaking up the pact. 

While the Unholy Three was no longer an entity, they would revolve around each other’s Chicago musical world. Then, on June 28th, 1928, Armstrong, Hines and Singleton would be joined in the Okeh studios by three guys from the Dickerson band—Jimmy Strong, clarinet; Fred Robinson, trombone; and Mancy Carr, banjo—for what ended up being one of the most important days in jazz history. While I take no umbrage at being accused of occasional hyperbole, you’d have no grounds for such an accusation in this case. Those six men took a tune composed by King Oliver (and just recorded by him two weeks earlier), and changed not only jazz history, but music history. In fact, if you look on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website, you’ll find “the 500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll.” This list contains recordings from AC/DC to the Zombies. And under A for Armstrong, one three minute, twenty-one second slice of history called “West End Blues.”

No one had heard a trumpet player do that before. With this record, Louis let the world know who was boss. I’ll pile on more superlatives myself, but in case you don’t trust me I’d like you to hear from the scholars:
First up, Gunther Schuller. He wrote Early Jazz: It’s Roots and Musical Development. He wasn’t kidding when he said, “’West End Blues’ served notice that jazz had the potential to compete with the highest order of previously known expression.”
Terry Teachout, in Pops—“The four staccato quarter notes he raps out at the start of “West End Blues,” his most celebrated recording, proclaimed the coming of a new way of thinking about rhythm.” Or, incidentally mentioning the song later in the book he tosses off the phrase, “…riot of virtuosity.” Spend a few seconds imagining what a “riot of virtuosity” sounds like!
In Satchmo, author Gary Giddins said how that recording “came to symbolize more than any other the ascendancy of a classic American music.” Giddins went on to draw a line in the sand regarding Louis’ cadenza. “…no trumpeter, in or out of jazz, has convincingly replicated Armstrong’s nine-measure intro.”

I can’t stop! Let’s turn to the pianist of that day, Earl Hines. “When it first came out Louis and I stayed by that recording practically an hour and a half or two hours and we just knocked each other out because we had no idea it was gonna turn out as good as it did.” Billie Holiday, in Lady Sings The Blues, had this to say, “Sometimes the record would make me so sad I’d cry up a storm. Other times the same damn record would make me so happy.” Do you hear these people? I mean, I dare you to try to find three consecutive authors praising that record without seeing the words “immortal” at least once. 

My response to “West End Blues” is somewhere in Billie Holiday’s ballpark. I don’t think I go through the manic depressive pendulum that she apparently experienced with it, but it’s definitely emotional for me. I experience a sort of painful joy every time I hear it. The first time I heard that opening cadenza, my jaw dropped. I have had my back o’ head hairs rise up, I have had tears well up, I have discovered myself not breathing when to start his solo Louis holds a high B-flat for four exquisite bars (the Heaven) before ripping off an astonishing and acrobatic series of blues phrases (the Earth). Fortunately for us, after Louis brings us up there, Earl Hines gives us a shimmering soft landing so we don’t hurt ourselves. 

You’ll have to read the academics reasons for why the song is so important. Or ask me; I’d be glad to have a conversation about it, giving you much more information than you’d probably want. Tonight’s about the heart for me, though, not the brain. I am so glad that my life led me to a place where I heard that record. It’s a record that’s perfect on a happy day, perfect on a blue day. It’s filled with hope and the certain knowledge that angels do sometimes visit us on earth. And speaking of down to earth, I’ll see you out at the Eagles on Thursday. Let’s see what the Aces can do wrapping ourselves around our three and a half minutes of the song that changed music forever.
I know I've run the risk of building it up a bit, but click on the link below to listen. Then buy it and listen to it again some sunny day. Then buy Terry Teachout’s book to read about it. Come on, do it!

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Lineage Of Inspiration

“Hey, Rick! What was that that shot my dad’s finger off?” If I’d had any doubts about where I was, if, as the medical professionals say, I wasn’t oriented to place, then that woman’s shout brought me into focus. My place in the world on this night was the Fraternal Order of Eagles, Aerie #34.

I was in the ballroom, and the shouting went on in the bar, so I wasn’t privy to the visual. A man, presumably Rick, replied with a laugh, “I think it was a BB gun. A Red Ryder BB gun.” Another man’s voice weighed in, “No, that how you shoot your eye out.” The woman who was the source of the inquiry had had enough. She was intent on the truth. “Come on, you guys! What was it that shot his finger off?” The men just kept laughing. We would never find out.

I was there to play some jazz music, not compare gunshot wounds. The Southside Aces would feature the Hall Brothers Jazz Band. It was like an Inspiration Funhouse of Mirrors. The Aces inspired to play the music of the Hall Brothers inspired to play the music of King Oliver, Sam Morgan, etc. Hall Brother stalwart, Charlie DeVore, has unerringly guided me to all those original inspirers as well, thus the reflections break off, come back, go deeper, sometimes become moderately distorted. Speaking of distorted, how about this analogy? But the jazz music can be a funhouse, and the owner of the carnival, Charlie, would himself be seated in the cornet chair. Stop me! Enough already!

We wouldn’t be able to get our guitarist for the night, Mark Kreitzer in his chair until at least halfway through the first set, so we had to behave like a combination brass band/dance band. Charlie suggested we begin with “Bugle Boy March.” “Do you know that one?” he asked. I shook my head and Erik said, “Not yet. But we know ‘Bourbon Street Parade.’” Who doesn’t? So we started the night roasting that chestnut. Steve sang “My Blue Heaven,” and we rendered “I Want Somebody To Love” in a sweet but stompy fashion. Just then, Mark knocked on the ballroom side-door to be let in. The band, aided by Charlie’s vocal, went on with “We’ll Understand It Better By And By.” Mark put the Western in the Swing warbling “Jambalaya On The Bayou.” As per usual, I called a waltz for the good folk at the Eagles, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Charlie asked, “Do you guys play the verse?” Erik answered with mock terseness, “Not. Yet. Charlie, you’re pushing us!” We then stuck a fork in the set with our good friend, David West, singing “San.” We did know the verse on that one. 

Dave had brought the record sleeves of his entire collection of Hall Brothers albums and 45s. He had affixed them to the curtain behind the band. This meant we were even more of a visual spectacle then usual. Audience members came in closer during the break to peer at all the artwork.

The feature set was a doozy. As Charlie would say later, “I love playing all those songs, but I’ve never played them all in one set!” I risked the ire of the dancing crowd by having Charlie give some historical context as to just why we were playing these songs. Why the Hall Brothers played them originally. I have to say he conducted himself rather circumspectfully, if I may take liberty with the usage of the word. I know it’s a dance, and the dancers like when a band moves along, but I believe everyone in that room benefited from an understanding of the lineage of performance. 

Our first tune, for instance. The Sam Morgan Band in New Orleans records “Bogalusa Strut” around 1927. A young Jim Robinson plays trombone in that band, and goes on to be one of the main trombonists of New Orleans jazz from the fifties through the seventies, and was one of several New Orleanians who mentored the Hall Brothers. The Hall Brothers go on to record the song themselves in the sixties. In that recording, Butch Thompson takes a gazillion choruses on his clarinet. The band arranges to break it down so that on his first chorus he’s all by his lonesome. They then start the layering with the bass, going chorus to chorus adding rhythm men one at a time, finally Russ Hall on the trombone and Charlie on cornet. It’s a great record. So here we are in 2012, and I have the temerity to recreate that moment. I hold myself together, and we’re off!

“Sing You Sinners” was Hall Brother Doggie Berg’s vocal. Doggie, of course, is no longer with us (I wore one of his ties in honor of the occasion), so Charlie did the singing. It involves stops, key changes, odd forms, and a coda. All the Aces had huddled up before the set to go over the roadmaps on several of these songs. Mark already was beginning to doubt his memory on this one. Dave helped him out with some pointers, but especially when he said, “And if you don’t get it, it’s all right. You’d only be blowing history.” 

The Luis Russell tune, “Saratoga Shout,” was a bit rough but solid. Charlie sang “Waiting At The End Of The Road.” We ripped up “Stevedore Stomp.” Then Charlie sang what’s become one of his classics, “Mister Johnson.” We finished with what might be my new current favorite, “Deep Henderson.” The band loves it. The dancers expressed specific enthusiasm for it. And with that, history circles around once again. Charlie told me about the Hall Brothers whipping dancers into a frenzy out on the Funky Butt Dance Floor at the Emporium of Jazz with “Deep Henderson.” Here we are decades later moving a new generation of dancers around. Talk about deep. 

We hold a raffle during these features. Erik told the crowd we would be “raffling off an actual Hall Brother.” We didn’t, of course, but we raffled off their recordings. We always have a food portion of the raffle as well. A trip to Ingebretsen’s, Minneapolis’ own Scandinavian store on 16th and east Lake, and I had procured a jar of herring in Cajun Sauce. Erik wove this story, “Since we’re a band of Minnesotans, with some Scandinavian heritage in there, playing the music of another band of Minnesotans who play the music of New Orleans, we thought Cajun herring was appropriate for the occasion.” What could be better to represent a Minnesota/Louisiana connection than Scandinavian/Cajun pickled fish?

The third set was looser now that the history was, well, history. Butch Thompson sat in. He wore his Sorrels and a green knit cap. He sat down and apologized for his attire. “No, it’s great,” I assured him, “You’re providing a direct tie-in to the Eagles.” This is funny, though it may sound a bit snooty. But it’s true! When we show up in our New Orleans black pants, white shirt and tie, we invariably stick out. But truth be told, the Eagles only has to look at you once up and down and they accept you as you are. Have I mentioned how I love this place?

The music of the last set began with “It’s Tight Like That,” vocals by Charlie and myself. Charlie spun Mary Ellen around the dance floor while Butch and I sweetened up the night a bit with “Sweet Lorraine.” When Charlie stepped back onstage, Erik said on mic, “Hey Charlie, nice of you to show up.” Charlie charmed us with “A Porter’s Lovesong To A Chambermaid.” Then the absolute surprise of the night! Butch Thompson sang! He and Charlie harmonized on “Ready For The River.” A great Jimmie Noone moment. The evening finally ended with Steve singing “Going Down To New Orleans.” 

This, people, was a fantastic night of music. It really brought clarity to the lineage of inspiration up here in Minnesota, at least as I’ve experienced it. Charlie and Butch are perhaps two of the speediest people I know when it comes to sidestepping compliments that run along the lines of “You guys have inspired us to play this music!” They quickly point to the originals of the music, saying they deserve all the credit. But I wouldn’t be playing this music if it wasn’t for all those Hall Brothers and their commitment to playing the music that inspired them.