New Orleans is often claimed to be jazz’s birthplace. While that point may be arguable to some, it was definitely, if not the birthplace, then the all important incubator. Being an active seaport and a multi cultural way station, it was the perfect place for an art form that would incorporate so many diverse elements. Initial jazz bands were largely an entertainment phenomenon. Typified by the brass bands such as could be found playing dances, bars and other colorful places in the Storyville area of New Orleans. The structure of this early music was very simple, a specific rhythm was set up and people would shake their thing on the dance floor or march down the streets in a funeral procession. Slowly, soloists and their distinctive voices started creeping into the music, playing a more prominent part and serving as catalyst for the arrangements to reach for more complexity.
Kid Ory (1886-1973) and Joe "King" Oliver (1885-1939) were among the first star soloists, hot on their heels was Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) and Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931). Their innovations brought jazz closer to the art form as we today know it. The tempos and rhythms still strongly emphasized dancing, but now too there were the beginnings of more formalized arrangements for the band.
Like the music itself, several things went into creating "The Jazz Age" which was to last, roughly a decade, providing a soundtrack for the 1920’s. At this time Chicago began to attract many southern state African Americans, musicians among them, with the promises of work. All the initial progenitors of jazz soon found themselves in Chicago serving residency at its various clubs. Earl Hines, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton all found themselves working this city. They started to gain a wider recognition through records they were now able to cut, bringing jazz to the national consciousness.
The First World War had ended there was a collective sense of relief and the need to celebrate. Almost mirroring aspects of the Italian Futurists movement, anything which was mechanical was modern, which became a byword for good. The entire country seemed caffeinated and the rhythms of this hot jazz gave cause to create kinetic sculptures on the dance floor. Just as instrumental soloists had crept into jazz, further evolving it, so now too did vocalists. For such early singers as Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters and Ma Rainey, there were innuendos, slang and amusing anecdotes for people to keep up on if they wanted to be hip. The number of musicians in an ensemble now also increased too. Pop music was the dance music, almost every song seemed to have a dance for it, the Charleston, The Lindy Hop (created in the Savoy ballroom and named after Charles Lindbergh who was first to cross the Atlantic Ocean, solo flight) the fox trot, et al. Not everyone in the country had places they could go to check out the latest dances. Records began being made with increased frequency and radio shows broadcasting from the various ballrooms also got their start around this time. Coatrooms at all the clubs now had corset checks too, so the bob haired flappers could dance unencumbered. Everyone was geared up to attend a big party that was far too good to last. With the brilliance of a shooting star, it was over, gone. The era had gotten its Jazz Age moniker from the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald whose roman a clefs and own biography perhaps paint one of the most memorable pictures of the age.
The Jazz age gave way to the big band era. Not all the artistic greats imploded or used up all of their cache of social/artistic relevance. People like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway along with many others who had just been getting their starts during the jazz age would go on to flourish in the coming decades, contributing greatly to the jazz cannon. The big band era saw a further complexity of arrangements and technological advances in both records and radio broadcasting.
While the big band era was going there were other genres, tributaries which flowed from the same wellspring. Stride piano, a usually rapidly played solo piano piece which was made up of equal parts blues and classical components mixed together with improvisation, jazz’s lifeblood. Another genre which came up at the end of the jazz age and was inspired by big band was Country Swing.
Country swing was best exemplified by Bob Willis and His Texas Playboys. Inspired by what he had heard on the radio, Bob Willis (1905-1975) cut his first seminal recordings in 1935. Within these twenty four tracks, done in a homemade studio in Dallas were stylistic elements which would serve as, if not always obvious, key components to the more progressive elements of this big band sub genre.
Country Swing, like the musical genres of blues and country was not, in its nascence as rigid in its performance or compositional elements as it was later to become. Bob Willis would, like Duke Ellington, gather top notch musicians around him to both record and perform in live situations with. Where as the big band music which Bob Willis admired from the radio incorporated both the blues and the already diverse cultural elements from the southern practitioners, Bob Willis added western influences such as fiddle music and components from south of the border. There was to be found also a European feel not dissimilar to what people like Django Reinhardt (1910-1953) and his Quintette duo hot Club de France were doing over in Paris. In both cases it was one of the occasional and rare occurrences in music when popular culture and art seem to perfectly align, the artists achieving stardom on an international level.
Aside from mixing the different regional influences which included horns, fiddle and lap steel, Bob Willis’ music also incorporated vocalists. This cemented their popularity and also made them more accessible to the more casual, non-dancing listener. From his initial recognition when he and his group were known as the "Aladdin Laddies" (Aladdin Lamp Co was their sponsor) until well after he had received many accolades, Bob Willis always referred to his music as "Western Dance Music" not "Country Swing".
As much as I often refer to genre names, it is easy to get too bogged down in labels. This emphasis on genre can hinder or prevent ones enjoyment and exploration of all the music which is out there to discover.
I recently had the pleasure of discovering the music of a sextet out of Portland, Oregon called The Midnight Serenaders. Are they hot jazz, country swing? It does not matter, they incorporate many early jazz elements. Their album Magnolia is a pleasure to listen to. It manages to be both fun and art.
When the cocktail/swing revival of the late 1990’s came about there were many retro/novelty bands popping up in every major city, running the full gambit from swing to cocktail to hot jazz. Now these bands are mostly all gone, having briefly had their moment in the sun. Those that remain or whom are newly minted now do it for an affection for the music. The Midnight Serenaders manage to transcend being merely kitsch/retro, all the music capturing with emotional authenticity, the stylings of the early years of jazz.
All the band members are fully committed to the music and this translates into an authenticity which while managing to offer a sonic glimpse of jazz’s early years, is never a thing coldly trapped under museum glass. The execution is so well done that it avoids completely the risk of the Serenaders being merely a nostalgia act. Never once on the album do you get the feeling that you are listening to musicians doing a side project which allows them to play in a style outside their day-job métier to break up professional monotony.
In their promotional material and musical execution The Midnight Serenaders avoid pigeon holing themselves by strictly aligning themselves too specifically with one particular musical school, incorporating aspects of hot, swing and other early musical components. It is all seamlessly merged.
The songs on Magnolia are covers which run the full gambit of early jazz oeuvre, from "A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid" (James P. Johnson) to a saucy "My Handyman" (Eubie Blake). The vocal chores are shared by Dee Settlemier who doubles on ukulele and Doug Sammons who also plays guitar. Dee’s singing throughout is strong and you never get the suspicion that studio wizardry is involved with any aspect of her performance. She is one part Louise Brooks mixed with one part Anita O’Day for the perfect vocalist cocktail. Doug’s vocals too are good, he sounds completely at home with the music never once stumbling or having to ever resort to the sort of "talk/singing" some do when out of their depth. On the songs where they sing together the contrasts are made interesting and work because they can both actually sing and their sense of fun and knowledge of the music clearly comes through on every song.
"I Must Have That Man" largely associated with Billie Holiday, here is given a new spin, surely the way one should approach any song already "owned" by a great. The Serenader’s version is melancholy, but unlike Lady Day’s, the romantic yearning is a temporary, minor setback. Here, one gets the feeling that the song’s protagonist will eventually get her man.
David Evans doubles up throughout the album on clarinet and saxophone. He gets a rich, laconic feel during some of his solos on saxophone such as can be found on "My Handyman". His clarinet playing is as equally satisfying letting out a low purr during some of the quieter moments on the album or playfully bubbling elsewhere.
Garner Pruitt on trumpet manages to encompass a compelling and varied technique throughout. He sometimes plays with mute other times does a trebled brass bumblebee shaking with mirth. It is nice too to hear someone play on a mute in a way other than how Miles Davis approached it.
The song "Sand" has some nice soloing on Hawaiian steel guitar by Henry Bogdan. The entire band plays but towards the end there is a sort of duet between clarinet and the Hawaiian steel which can easily set one to day dreaming. Hawaiian steel/lap steel is not that old of an instrument. I am surprised that it is not encountered more often in jazz. Much like vibraphones, part of the instruments power is in its ability to rapidly shift from helping to provide a sort of sonic ambient back ground support to one of lead solo voice. When soloing it can easily shift emotional gears, allowing for more varied expressions in its musical statement.
The bass played by Pete Lampe is tasteful and a perfect fit. There are no overly fancy solos of a style not congruent with the rest of the music. There is no drummer in the band, instead the various stringed instruments mixing with what Pete is doing shades of Django Reinhardt and his Quintette duo hot Club de France.
A lot of the lyrics tell stories and are fun to listen to, Tin Pan Alley’s wry humor now being largely forgotten by modern lyricists. Lyrically too, the innuendos are clever and often fun sexy but all delivered without over doing it. The vocal stylings and the way the music meshes with it make it so this album stands up to repeated listening. There are no weak links in the band and you never get the feeling you are listening to a singer’s album where a few token solos are thrown to the band.
The sound throughout is pristine. All the instruments and their layering can be heard even in a car with lackluster stereo. There are no liner notes, but the CD pamphlet is styled to look like an old magazine music ad. Throughout the album, the music is fun and all the band member’s personalities clearly come through. There is never any sense of gimmick or stale nostalgia. These are good musicians who have decided on a slightly different path. Expand your palette, have a drink and take a turn out on the dance floor with the Serenaders.
Midnight Serenaders - Magnolia
Doug Sammons - guitar& vocals
Henry Bogdan - Hawaiian steel guitar
Dee Settlemie - ukulele& vocals
Pete Lampe- upright bass
Garner Pruitt - trumpet
Davis Evans - clarinet& saxophone
-Maxwell Chandler will return with more adventures in sound-