Archive for Jazz

Jazz, Icarus and Henri Matisse

Posted in Art, Biographical with tags , , , on September 8, 2017 by telescoper

I forgot to mention that while I was in London last weekend I visited the exhibition Matisse in the Studio at the Royal Academy of Arts in Burlington House (Piccadilly). It’s an interesting show, covering not only on the art works by Henri Matisse but also various items he had collected and kept in his studio, some of which appear in his paintings in various forms. Anyway, do go to the exhibition if you can – it’s there until November 12th.

Anyway, all that reminded me of this famous image by Matisse, called Icarus, which seems to fit the theme of this blog. It appears in a small booklet called Jazz which consists of collages and other images as well as text written by the artist himself.


Stardust – Louis Armstrong

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on August 22, 2017 by telescoper

This wonderful recording of Hoagy Carmichael’s great song Stardust was made in 1931 by Louis Armstrong with his big band. After the heights that Armstrong reached in the 1920s, starting with King Oliver and then with the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, some jazz critics maintain that the 1930s were a comparative wilderness. Well, I think he sings and plays beautifully on this so if this is a wilderness just take me to it, and I’ll pitch my tent there anytime!

The Versatile Four

Posted in History, Jazz with tags , , , , , on July 14, 2017 by telescoper

I’ve posted a few examples of Jazz drummers recently, so I thought you might be interested in this, a rare recording of performance from the (pre-Jazz) Ragtime era that provides a good example of where  Jazz drumming came from. This track was recorded in London way back in 1916 and it’s remarkable for the clarity with which you can hear the drums, which in those days usually proved very difficult to capture.  The tune, Down Home Rag (written by Wilbur C. Sweatman) was a big hit at the time and remains in the traditional jazz repertoire to this day. It’s played by The Versatile Four an almost legendary ragtime band that I know very little about other than the personnel: Tony Tuck (banjo; born 1879 Virginia); Charles W. Mills (piano; born 1883 Illinois); Gus Haston (banjo, vocals; born 1880 Missouri); and  Charlie Johnson (drums; born 1885 Kentucky). I’m not sure who it is who blows the whistle, but it may well be the drummer.

Charlie Johnson’s playing of the drums may sound very old-fashioned and a bit staff to ears accustomed to the swinging style of the jazz era, and he no doubt used a very crude kit, but this recording shows what an absolutely superb musician he was. You can also clearly hear the influence of the sort of drum patterns used by military marching bands. As well being an interesting piece from the point of view of music history, the drummer suffuses this high-energy performance with a sense of knockabout fun that is guaranteed to bring a smile to even the most crabbed face!



Take Five with Joe Morello

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on June 13, 2017 by telescoper

Not long ago I posted a clip of a drum solo by the great Joe Morello which has proved to be extremely popular. Since a meeting I thought I had this afternoon has been cancelled I’ve decided to take five minutes out to post another terrific drum solo.

The tune Take Five, composed by alto saxophonist Paul Desmond and recorded by the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1959, became a hit at the second attempt when it was re-released in 1961. It proved so popular that the band performed many versions of it live, manu of which can be found on youtube. This one is not unusual in that it is performed at a faster tempo than the version that was released as a single. I read an interesting blog post a while ago that explains how Joe Morello’s arrival almost broke up the Dave Brubeck Quartet, as Paul Desmond and he had clashing personalities. I think Part of that was Morello’s predilection for tempos that were a bit faster than Desmond was comfortable with; Paul Desmond had a beautiful tone, but in contrast to many of his Jazz contemporaries on the instrument, he was never a speed merchant on alto saxophone. He seems to be less fluent than usual on this track, at least at first, probably because of the speed.

Joe Morello’s drum solo, on the other hand, is characteristically wonderful. Just watch his superb left-hand technique, from a relatively gentle opening to when he turns down the strainer on the snare drum he starts to build up to a stunning climax in which his hands are far too fast for the camera. It’s a great solo, not only because of it’s technical brilliance but because it’s so beautifully constructed. All in 5/4 time too…

Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman in Chicago

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on May 10, 2017 by telescoper

Following up the post I did last week about Joe Morello which proved very popular, here is another about a drummer whose name came up in the discussion following that item, Gene Krupa.

Gene Krupa didn’t exactly invent the image of the drummer as a madman who sat at the back of the band, but he certainly cultivated it. He may sometimes have lacked subtlety in his playing, but he always injected a huge amount of energy into a performance whether in a small group (as here) or behind a big band.

His extrovert personality proved an excellent complement to the rather introverted bandleader Benny Goodman which, together with his undoubted technical ability, led to them having a very long working relationship. That said, Gene Krupa did leave the Goodman Orchestra in 1938 reportedly because Benny Goodman didn’t his drummer’s tendency to hog the limelight, insisting on taking a drum solo in just about every number. They did continue to work together for many years afterwards, however, as this clip demonstrates.

Many people credit Gene Krupa for basically inventing the modern drum kit and was certainly one of the first drummers in Jazz to be well known as a soloist and, indeed, the first to become a nationwide celebrity. He also inspired subsequent generations of drummers: Keith Moon of The Who was an admirer of Gene Krupa and I was told some years ago that Krupa also provided the inspiration for `Animal’, the drummer in the Muppet Show band.

People don’t generally realize what a smash hit Benny Goodman’s band was in the pre-War years – their fame was exactly on the scale of the `Beatlemania’ of a few decades later.

My Dad taught himself to play the drums using a book called The Gene Krupa Drum Method. I found his (very old and battered) copy of it among his personal effects after he died almost a decade ago and gave it – along with his drums, sticks, brushes, etc – to a local school. One thing that came from learning from a book was that he learnt to read drum music very well, which helped him get jobs with various dance bands. Few Jazz drummers of his generation could read music.

This performance, dating from the 1960s, represents a kind of reunion the three members of Benny Goodman’s famous trio of the 1930s (Goodman, Krupa and Teddy Wilson), along with bassist George Duvivier. I never really understood how that original trio managed to get away without having a bass player, but it was hugely popular and made a number of terrific records.

There’s a (somewhat rambling) verbal introduction by Benny Goodman, so I’ll restrict myself to a couple of observations. One is that Gene Krupa (who is clearly enjoying himself in this clip – watch him at about 3:07!) shows off the `trad’ grip very effectively. The other is that if you look closely at Teddy Wilson’s right hand you can see that he doesn’t have the use of his index finger, which he was unable to unbend. I believe that came about as the aftermath of a stroke and it caused him a lot of problems in later life although he carried on playing well into the 1980s. Anyway, he still plays very nicely, as do they all. Enjoy!

One Hundred Years of Ella Fitzgerald

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on April 25, 2017 by telescoper

This morning Radio 3 reminded me that the great jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald was born exactly one hundred years ago today, on April 25th 1917. She passed away in 1996, but her legacy lives on through a vast array of wonderful recordings. I couldn’t resist marking the anniversary of her birth with this track, which I hope brings a smile to your face as it does to mine every time I listen to it. This track won her  Grammy award for the best vocal performance that year, which is pretty remarkable because she forgot the lyrics to the song! Besides this, there’s a lot of other great stuff on the album Ella in Berlin (including more improvised lyrics and some sensational scat singing on How High The Moon) so if you’re looking to start an Ella Fitzgerald collection this is a great place to start.

Mack the Knife had been a huge hit for Louis Armstrong in 1956 and then again for Bobby Darin in 1959. By all accounts Ella was prevailed upon to add it to her repertoire for live concerts. She wasn’t that keen but  reluctantly agreed. Obviously however she wasn’t so  enthusiastic as to actually learn the words! On the other hand, when you have a wonderful voice and an amazing musical imagination, who needs the words? Ella not only made up some lyrics herself on the fly, but also threw in a rather wonderful Louis Armstrong impersonation for good measure. Enjoy!



100 Years of Jazz on Record

Posted in History, Jazz with tags , , , on February 26, 2017 by telescoper

Today marks a very significant centenary in the history of music, specifically Jazz. Much of the origins and early development of Jazz is lost in the mists of time, but there is one point on which most music historians agree. The first commercial recording session that produced a record that nowadays is recognisable as Jazz happened exactly one hundred years ago today, on 26th February 1917, in the New York studios of the Victor label.

The band was called the ‘Original Dixieland Jass Band‘. A few months later they changed the “Jass” to “Jazz” and the name stuck. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band is usually referred by Jazz buffs as the ODJB.

Led by cornettist Nick LaRocca and clarinettist Larry Shields, the ODJB was a group of white musicians from in and around New Orleans who had picked up their musical ideas from listening to musicians there, including playing for the pioneering mixed-race band led by Papa Laine, before moving to Chicago which is where they were spotted by representatives of the Victor label. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s worth emphasizing that 1917 was also a significant year for New Orleans itself, as that was the year that the red light district Storyville was shut down (as a threat to the health of the US Navy). Since Storyville had provided many of the opportunities for black musicians to work, its closure started  a mass exodus to Chicago. That, and a desire among black musicians to leave the deeply racist South, is why most of the classic “New Orleans” Jazz records were actually made in Chicago.

Although they don’t represent the true origins of jazz, the ODJB were fine musicians who played with a great deal of pizzazz and were highly original and innovative. Audiences also found them great to dance to. The first single to be issued as a result of the historic first session was Livery Stable Blues. It was an instant hit and was followed by dozens more. As well as leading to fame and fortune for the ODJB, it paved the way for a century of Jazz on record.