Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Jazz World: Swing It!

The jazz musicians of New Orleans migrated north to other cities and began to influence players all over the country. Soon jazz scenes began to spring up in places like New York, Chicago and Kansas City. The musicians found work in speakeasies, night clubs and stage shows eventually coming together in large orchestras to play at places like Harlem's Cotton Club.  There were any number of important bandleaders who emerged in the 1920's and 1930's like Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, Artie Shaw, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and Cab Calloway but without question the most important was Duke Ellington.

Duke Ellington

Ellington is universally recognized as the finest composer jazz ever produced.  He led his orchestra from 1923 until his death in 1974 and had a gift of producing memorable tunes that showcased the talents of all the great soloists he employed, men like Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges, Lawrence Brown, Ben Webster, Jimmy Blanton and Paul Gonsalves.  He was brilliant writing in shorter forms, coming up with  classic works like "Black And Tan Fantasy", "Mood Indigo", "Satin Doll" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" but in later years he was able to expand his range, doing longer suites dedicated to Asia, Africa and the plays of Shakespeare among other subjects. In the last thirty years of his career he got to collaborate with another gifted composer, Billy Strayhorn. and to top it all off, he was an amazing piano player away from the band.

No one or two clips can do Ellington's music justice but here is a tiny sampling. First up is "It Don't Mean A Thing". Ray Nance is the first singer and violinist and Ben Webster takes the tenor solo:

And from the later days, perhaps the greatest soloist Duke ever employed, the magnificent alto player Johnny Hodges performing Strayhorn's "Isfahan" from the Far East Suite. (The holding the score bit was evidently an in joke within the band. Hodges didn't need to read the music.)

Benny Goodman

In the 1930's big band jazz, then known as Swing, became the most popular music in the country and the bandleader who led that surge was Benny Goodman, a deserving front man. Goodman's clarinet playing was superb, his band swung mightily and he had a lof of gifted soloists like trumpeter Harry James, pianist Jess Stacy and drummer Gene Krupa. Goodman also led one of the most successful small groups of the day in his trio with Lionel Hampton on vibraphone and Teddy Wilson on piano.  In 1938 his band became the first jazz group to play Carnegie Hall helping legitimize the music as art.

This is the Goodman orchestra in the 1937 movie Hollywood Hotel doing "Sing Sing Sing" with James and Krupa featured then immediately cutting to some action by the trio with Krupa added.

Count Basie

The other great bandleader of this period I wanted to mention was Count Basie.  Basie's group came out of Kansas City and was heavily steeped in the blues. His sound may have been simpler than Ellington's but it was a powerhouse, sporting a gifted blues singer named Jimmy Rushing who'll I'll discuss in a later post and one of the most influential tenor players of all time in Lester Young.  Basie, like all the big band leaders, went through a fallow period after World War II as popular tastes shifted from large bands to singers but he rebounded strongly in the 1950's with a sleek but massive ensemble sound and a number of excellent tunes provided by arrangers like Frank Foster, Quincy Jones and Neal Hefti. However it was organist Wild Bill Davis, who did the arraignment of the tune that became one of the signatures of the latter day Basie band, "April In Paris":

Next Time: A couple of saxophone players and a revolution.

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