billie and louis again

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In the spirit of my last post, have a listen to this lovely version of ‘My Sweet Hunk O’Trash’. It’s Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong singing together a couple of years after that film New Orleans was released.

Recording details:
Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday with Sy Oliver’s Orchestra: Bernie Privin (trumpet) Louis Armstrong (vcl) Sid Cooper, Johnny Mince (alto sax) Art Drellinger (tenor sax) Pa Nizza (tenor sax, Baritone sax) Billy Kyle (piano) Everett Barksdale (guitar) Joe Benjamin (bass) James Crawford (drums) Billie Holiday (vocal) Sy Oliver (arranger, conductor)
New York, September 30 1949
7543 My sweet hunk o’trash De 24785, DL8701, Br (E)05074, De (F)MU60363, AoH AH64, Br (G)10159LPBM
It’s a lovely example of two musicians playing with timing and phrasing. It’s a nice song, but it’s their delivery, their to-and-fro that makes it nice. The rest of the band isn’t terribly interesting; this is a song showcasing the vocals.
I probably wouldn’t play this song for dancers. The emphasis on the vocals means that you really have to listen properly to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it, and that’s not really something you can do when you’re dancing. It’s also really slow, not juicy enough for blues dancing, far too slow for lindy hop. The vocal showcasing means that the rest of the instrumentation is understated. There’s not much going on behind Louis and Billie. This can make for fairly dull dancing; when you’re dancing, you look for a range of rhythmic and melodic layers. The more aural interest, the more interesting the dancing. Sometimes it’s nice to dance simply, but when the tempos are this slow, you’re really looking for something more.
Having said that, there are worse songs you could play for dancers.
Btw, if you’re as concerned about the racial subtexts at work in New Orleans as I am, check out this article, which goes a little way towards addressing those issues (let’s not talk about my desire for ‘owning’ jazz just yet. This white girl knows she’s got some work to do).
I am currently reading my way (very, very slowly) through David Ake’s book Jazz Cultures. There’s a refreshingly sophisticated approach to race and ethnicity in this book, and though I’m only in the first chapter (I keep stopping to chase and note references), he’s already upsetting black/white dichotomies with a discussion of Creole music and culture in New Orleans and complicating issues of whiteness and blackness which are going a long way to reassuring me about jazz studies literature. I don’t have much to write about that yet, but I will eventually.

billie holiday and louis armstrong

This is a nice clip of Louis Armstrong (and amazing band) playing ‘Dixie Music Man’ from the 1947 film New Orleans.
The woman with the flowers in her hair is Billie Holiday. The band features Kid Ory, Bunny Berigan and Zutty Singleton (with others) – musicians I’ve been following through a range of bands lately.

This clip was posted by Rayned on faceplant, and it’s timely because I’m obsessed by Armstrong and Holiday at the moment. Yesterday I photocopied all the bits of the Discography referring to Holiday. I’m not going to even try that with Armstrong – there’s an entire, huge book devoted to his recordings alone.
bh.jpeg It’s fascinating to follow these guys through different bands. Both were really amazing musicians with a sense of swing that’s really incomparable. You can pick Armstrong’s trumpet in any recording, no matter how crappy and crackly. and Billie… her later stuff is really tricky to dance to because she’s so clever with phrasing and timing. Sometimes she’s so way, way back there behind the beat you’re sure she’s just about to be out of time completely. I like listening to the way she shapes a band when she’s singing with them – with live recordings. She can work around a straight, uptight band and make them sound like they’re actually hot. Same goes for Louis – these guys have a sense of timing that’s impeccable. Like really good comedians.

(‘Fireworks’, Louis Armstrong & His Hot 5 with Earl Hines, Zutty Singleton 1928)
For my money, Armstrong was really rocking with this small groups in the late 20s. This was a collection of great New Orleans jazz musicians, many of whom began with King Oliver, and most of whom moved on to Chicago and then New York (and further afield). I’m a massive fan of Kid Ory, but I’m also digging Zutty Singleton. I’m a bit of a nut for rhythm sections generally (I think it’s because I listen to this stuff as a dancer), and Singleton just keeps popping up in the bands I like.
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(That pic of the Armstrong Hot Five is from the Louisiana State Museum site, which is just fascinating.)
I was a little sceptical of the claims made about Armstrong’s Hot fives and sevens until I actually sat down and listened to them in chronological order – after the stuff he did supporting singers like Bessie Smith (! powerhouse combo, much? An example: St Louis Blues 1925)), after his work with King Oliver. But before his Orchestra stuff of the 1930s (some of which is a bit dodgy, I’ve found). I’m not really interested in his stuff after the 50s (though I bet I’ll change my mind on that too), and I really don’t like ‘Hello Dolly’ and all that vocal rot. I quite like him doing nice, silky groovy duets with Ella Fitzgerald (many of which included Oscar Peterson), but my real interest in his music is in his late 20s and early 30s stuff when you really hear his approach to timing and nuance signaling musical change: the swing era’s coming. But nobody else is really there yet.
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(That pic of the Hot five to the right is from this interesting blog)
These Hot Five and Seven bands were really one of the the first real opportunities for Armstrong to experiment with music and musicians on his own terms in his own bands. I think the smaller group allows the sort of group or ensemble improvisation that you just can’t keep under control with a big band. The best example of this sort of improvisation usually comes in the final chorus when it sounds as though everyone’s doing their own thing (because they are), but are still working together, playing within a particular framework. That’s the sort of thing I LOVE as a dancer and DJ because it reminds me of lindy hop – improvisation within structure. I love playing this sort of stuff for dancers because the energy suddenly leaps in that final chorus, and you can end a song (or a set) on a high energy point. I especially love Fats Waller for this. He might begin with a quieter song whose clever lyrics make you listen up carefully, but he ends with a loud, raucous shouting chorus that makes you bust out like a fool on the dance floor.
In a smaller group, Armstrong lets the musicians play in their own ways, but still works as the lynchpin in a fairly complicated musical machine. The ensemble improvisation allows each musician to shine with improvisation, but still maintains a sense of group or collaborative wholeness; it’s not just random noise. The musicians were all amazing, including Louis Armstrong on trumpet, Lil Hardin (who became Lil Hardin Armstrong) on piano, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Kid Ory on trombone and Johnny St. Cyr on banjo. The band’s membership changed a little, and the group also recorded as the Hot Seven (there are a range of other names for similar groupings, including a special Savoy small band). Additional musicians included Kid Ory (cornet), Lonnie johnson (guitar), Earl Hines (piano), Zutty Singleton (drums) and a few different vocalists (May Alix is one who catches my eye because she also did work with Jimmie Noone, who I love). The Hot Fives and Sevens recorded between 1925 and 1928 (you can read more about the Hot 5 here on redhotjazz.com).
Just in case you’re wondering where the Billie Holiday talk is…

I really like this recording of ‘Fine and Mellow’. The musicians are, of course, amazing. It’s from 1957, when Billie was already more than a little trashed by drugs and alcohol. But she really was a phenomenal singer. Even as her voice became more and more ragged, her technique and sense of music were indefatigable. The Decca collection liner notes mention that she was the sort of musician (or artist is the term I think they use) who used one or two takes to record songs. She could simply get it right the first time. As the liner notes say, she had an idea of how she was going to do the song, and then she did it. Holiday didn’t have the length of career that Armstrong did (he was recording from 1923 (at least) til 1971), she had only a couple of decades), but her music spread from that hot, swinging jazz moment in the 30s and the pop/ballad/jazz feel of the 50s and 60s.
And of course, I’ve just written a post which presents the history of ‘jazz’ in terms of two ‘artists’. But I think it’s important to note that Armstrong’s Hot Five were just that – five (or seven, or six) musicians working together. The collective improvisation is really important, this isn’t the showcasing of solos of the swing era. This is a group of people working and listening together to make something together. Holiday’s work as a vocalist was primarily as a response to the bands and musicians she was working with. Her close friendship with Lester Young is perhaps the best example. There’s plenty of anecdotal (and evidence based) discussion of their musical collaboration as a process of listening to and learning from each other. Young is often quoted as being most inspired by vocalist’s technique. Holiday is often referred to as emulating Young’s saxophone technique. Their musical relationship was indubitably one of collaboration and mutual inspiration. After all, it’s very difficult to be a jazz musician all on your own.

mills blue rhythm band madness

Here is an experiment with embedding media players. The trouble is, very few of these have the music I’m after. But here’s a Mills Blue Rhythm Band song, in honour of ‘going complete’ and posters on SwingDJs‘ obsession with the band.

E-36992-A Savage Rhythm (Br 6229, 10303, CJM 23, TOM 57, GAPS (Du) 130, Decca GRD2-69 [CD]
Recorded by the Mills Blue Rhythm Band in New York on the 31st July 1931. Musicians included: Buster Bailey (clarinet), Wardell Jones, Shelton Hemphill, Henry Red Allen (trumpet), George Washington (trombone, arranger), JC Higginbotham (trombone), Gene Mikell (sop, as, bar, clarinet), Joe Garland (ts, bar, clarinet), Edgar Hayes (piano), Lawrence Lucie (guitar), Elmer James (bass), O’Neil Spencer (drums), George Morton (vocal), Benny Carter (arranger), Lucky Millinder (dir).
Note: Date used here as given in Storyville #108 (Rust listed date as July 30, 1931).
Brunswick 6119, 6229 as ‘Mills Blue Rhythm Boys’.
Decca GRD2-629 [CD] titled ‘An Anthology of big band swing, 1930-1955’; rest of this 2 CD set by others.
Title also on Hep (E)1015, CD1008 [CD].
Title also on Classics 676 [CD] titled ‘Mills Blue Rhythm Band 1931-1932’.
NB: below are some very preliminary thoughts I’ve had after very little research.
I’ve been spending an awful lot of time in the library lately. It began with the Con’s copy of the Tom Lord Jazz Discography. That’s twenty-odd volumes of dry and boring nerdery. According to The Squeeze. For a jazz nerd, that’s twenty-odd volumes of orsum. I have spent hours in there already. Days. Doing what? Going through my music, adding in dates, full band names, band personnel, recording locations. Extra, extra nerdy. But also quite interesting.
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(that’s the Wolverines in the Gennett Records studio from this interesting site)
I’ve gotten much better at identifying when a song was recorded, and I’m getting to know how a band changed or an artist changed over time. And I’m recognising not-so-big-name band members now, which is fascinating. I’m also beginning to be curious about things like travel. A band might have recorded a song on one day in one city, but another song in another city on the next day. This information alone gives you and idea of just how hard these guys worked – travel, travel, record, record, live show, live show. But when you consider the fact that they usually didn’t use planes (in the early days especially) and that segregation meant that these musicians were traveling in pretty shitty conditions…
I’m also interested in the way songs were often recorded only once in a session (or ever) in the early days. No time (or money) for second takes. This makes me think about the mad skills these guys had. Or the cost or difficulty of recording. And all one track as well – everyone just playing along all at once, just recording then and there as the technician heard it.
I’ve just come across a quite from Mary Lou Williams (from a book called The Jazz Scene: an Informal History From New Orleans to 1990 by W. Royal Stokes, 1991) where she talks about just how poor Andy Kirk’s band was in Kansas during the depression. The band simply wasn’t getting paid for gigs, so the musicians went days without eating. All that, and they’re still producing truly amazing, inspired music. Or perhaps because of that?
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Though the discography is just awesome (and I will continue to make return trips as my need for detail increases – at first dates were enough. Now I need everything), I have moved on. I want to know who was where in what years. Why did people leave a city at a certain time? What was the relationship between the northern migration, Jim Crow laws and the development of jazz in Chicago, New York and Kansas? What was New Orleans like, exactly?
(that image above is of Canal St, New Orleans in the 1920s from wikipedia. If you’re a big map nerd like me, you’ll love this collection of historic maps)
So I’ve been up the university library looking at books. Now, though, I’m thinking more critical questions. How come all the jazz book are written by men? Even the later ones? And what’s the significance of jazz scholarship having its roots in jazz criticism? What role did jazz music clubs (clubs for listeners not musicians) play in the New Orleans ‘revival’ (I’m wary of that term – my thesis has made me suspect a ‘revival’ is really another word for white middle class folk appropriating black culture)? What are the effects of researching a music using only recordings? Where ARE all the women in these stories?
I’m also wondering about jazz scholarship itself, in bigger ways. Where is the critical reflection? What are the effects of research so focussed on autobiography? The emphasis on auto- and biography is interesting; it suggests that some musicians were simply so great, so awesome, so influential, they created in a cultural and social vacuum, simply churning out greatness for the rest of the world to admire. But that simply isn’t the case, of any art; art is created in cultural and social context. So to divorce a musician from the rest of his life (and it is ‘his’ – there are no women here) suggests that the rest of this life was unimportant. As I’ve read recently (and I can’t find the ref, sorry), this lack invites an immediate investigation.
One of the things that comes up time and again in the oral histories of the period is that, for musicians, listening to other musicians is as important as playing. Young musicians (no matter how ‘gifted’) would seek out experienced teachers to learn from. Musicians would spend as much time listening to other bands as playing themselves. There’s this great bit in one book (the one I ref’d above) where the musician describes listening to a band at the Savoy: there were as many musicians as dancers there, drooling over the amazing band (Savoy Sultans? I can’t remember).
And of course, every great musician needed a band. These early jazz recordings are about the relationships between musicians in the band. They don’t – cannot – work alone. In fact, no matter how great one musician, they cannot lift an ordinary arrangement or recording to greatness if the rest of the band isn’t there, or if they aren’t working with the band. At the end of the day, the goal is to produce a great song, a great bit of music. That is the point of a lot of this stuff: it’s about collective improvisation in earlier jazz (where everyone mustwork together – order out of chaos) and about collectivism in the more tightly orchestrated big band swing of the 30s and 40s (where musicians must play together, perfectly, must step in at just the right moment for their solo).
This is of course, all besides the point that being a musician was about earning money to buy food or pay rent. This point makes me think about gender and travel. Linda Dahl (in Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen) makes the point that travel, while so central to the live of post-emancipation black men (who’s right to travel had been so viciously curtailed under slavery) was impossible for many black women. Women, as the carers of children and the aged could not uproot and travel with a band or to become a musician:

It was in the years of elation, confusion and turmoil following the Civil War that jazz began to take shape. The war brought an end to slavery and to the isolation it imposed, which had prevented among blacks the free exchange of ideas that fertilizes art. With abolition came mobility, if not equality. Many black men wandered, looking for work or luck or new vistas, and music traveled with them. But black women, history tells us, were more likely to stay put and hunker down for new roots. These were women who, as slaves, had carried double, even triple burdens. Not only did they work in the ‘big house’ or in the fields – as cottonpickers, eve as logrollers and lumberjacks, – but they of course did their own housework, bore their children and cared for their men. After abolition they were hungry for stable family environments, and it was easier for them to find work as cooks, laundresses or maids than for black men to find employment. Although circumstances dictated that they were often the breadwinners, they deferred to their men, especially in matters political. Above all else they devoted themselves to the hope of better lives for their children. Great were the physical and emotional demands upon them, and most found few opportunities and little time or energy for goals beyond survival (Dahl 1992:4).

For women, cultural and social context was absolutely clear and absolutely present in everything they did. While jazz historians can imagine a Sidney Bechet leaving New Orleans and gadding off to Chicago, New York, Paris, a free agent following his art, it is a little more difficult for them to write the stories of women who played and sang music from the home or the family or their (less romantic) place of work. There are many stories of the ‘whore house pianists’ but far fewer stories of the whores, who were occasionally musicians in their own rights.
Dahl also makes an interesting point about ‘anonymous’ music:

And black women certainly contriuted their share to the development of this music [jazz]. During slavery they made up songs that both drew upon and became part of everyday experience. ‘Anonymous’ was often a slave woman who crooned lullabies to the babies she birthed and the babies she reared, who made up ditties at quilting and husking bees or while she planted in the fields and tended her garden, who created music in her capacity as midwife and healer, at funerals and dances and in church, who developed distinctive vendor calls as she sold her wares. ‘Anonymous’ invented music to meet the occcasion out of a communal pool of musical-religious traditions. Women and men stripped of their names passed on standards and tribel memory to those who came after (Dahl 1992:4).

That point, of course, leads us to a discussion of black women blues singers in the 20s. But I don’t have the time now, and I haven’t read the books I have here. But I was very interested in this link between ‘jazz history’ and race and class and gender. I need more information, though.
This anonymity was the product of domesticity and ‘everydayness’; simply made invisible through its very ordinariness and ubiquity. It was not framed or positioned as ‘art’, and so it was invisible. This reminds me of discussions about vernacular dance. It’s only when it takes to the stage (and away from its mutability and use-value in everyday life) that it becomes visible to mainstream or elite audiences. This is perhaps the greatest problem with reading white histories of black music: these observers could only ‘see’ jazz or black music when it was on a stage, or in a recording, stripped of its everydayness. And these spaces were not accessible for many black women.
Reading jazz as a history made up of one great ‘artist’ after another is, then, highly problematic. I’m also wondering about the other, dominant approach: reading jazz as a history of a series of cities (New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas, New York). What about the ‘territories’ of the midwest, a series of smaller towns and cities strung together on the route of itinerant bands which played only to these towns and rarely (if ever) recorded? Perhaps, as the territories suggest, it’s more useful to think about these cities as sites in a network of ‘jazz place/space’. I want to follow up the idea of travel in early jazz – from the northern migration to individual bands and musicians migrating between cities and countries.
(There are some nice pics in this neat little article about territory bands).
Note: I’ve just found this interesting interview with Tim Brooks, author of Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890 – 1919. This book is on my list of ‘things to find’. And of course, if you’re interested in the early days of the American recording industry, the David Suisman article ‘Co-workers in the kingdom of culture: Black Swan Records and the political economy of African American music’ is a great resource.