The Rise and Fall of Popular Music
[A polemical history]
Small-group Jazz, the Jukebox, and New Independent Labels
You can still start arguments by postulating that big-band jazz was not jazz at all. This is nonsense, but the small groups of the Swing Era made a very special contribution, providing more room for hot solos and using simpler arrangements, often made up on the bandstand or in the studio. The greater freedom available to small groups allowed a different kind of innovation, the hallmark of jazz since its beginning. In the small-group recordings of the Swing Era may be heard the seeds of the music of the future, both in the rhythm and blues and the modern jazz directions.
In the mid-1930s several factors combined to create the new jukebox industry, which had an incalculable effect on popular music.
Edison's phonograph had been fitted with a coin slot and four listening tubes by Louis Glass and placed in a saloon in San Francisco in 1889. In 1891 the Louisiana Phonograph Company claimed that one of its machines, costing about $200, had grossed $1,000 in two months. In 1906 the Gabel Automatic Entertainer was the first machine to play a series of gramophone discs, using a spring-loaded hand-cranked motor and a 40" acoustic horn. There were huge, heavy, brilliantly engineered non-electric machines that played several cylinders in rotation; one handle wound the motor and changed the cylinder and the needle. But the phonograph parlour was soon replaced by player pianos.
Despite the fact that there had never been any adequate protection for the authors and composers of songs, and that in practice such protection could only be acquired through their publishers, Theodore Roosevelt (the 'trust buster') was outraged that the Music Publishers Association (MPA) and Aeolian had agreed a royalty of 10 per cent on piano rolls. A revised Copyright Act for popular music in 1909 required a royalty of two cents and compulsory licensing of all reproductions, whether piano rolls or sound recordings, and for all publishers, not just those in the MPA. This was said to be the first time in history that the government intervened directly between supplier and user of a product.
Aeolian's Aeriola player piano had been introduced in 1895; in 1898 Wurlitzer built the first coin-operated player piano. By 1910 these had overtaken nickel-in-the-slot record players. In 1916 the 'word-roll' added the words to the songs, printed on the margin of the roll: the words were not covered by the 1909 act, a good excuse to set royalties on such rolls much higher than two cents.
The best player pianos, such as the Ampico, reproduced music more or less accurately, and recordings were made by great pianists such as Rachmaninov and Busoni. But the vast majority of piano rolls and players were mechanical in the extreme, and no expression of any kind was available. George Gershwin and a good number of others first heard popular music on the pianola in the corner candy store; many a jazz pianist began by slowing down the piano roll and placing fingers on the keys as they were mechanically depressed. Between 1895 and the early 1920s over two million player pianos were sold; in 1921, of 341,652 pianos of all types, nearly two-thirds were player pianos. But the business failed during the Depression, and by then the radio and electric recording were beginning to have their effect. (In the 1990s the Yamaha Disklavier was operated by 'a full library of pre-recorded discs . . . from classical to contemporary'. So you could still buy a piano that played itself if you wanted to.)
In 1927 several firms built electrically operated record-playing machines; it was obvious that simply playing the records in rotation was not good enough, and selection mechanisms were developed. The Automatic Music Instrument Company (AMI) marketed the first electrically amplified, multi-selection device.
Homer Capehart worked for a company that made various coin-operated machines; he bought the rights to a record changer called the Simplex, and was fired for doing so. He formed his own company and made a splash at the Chicago Radio Show in 1928, attracting almost as much attention as the first public demonstration of television. The Capehart was not the first integrally designed automatic-changer for the home; Victor had marketed an Orthophonic acoustic player with an electrically operated changer, but it had problems. For one thing, discs in those days were not of uniform size, and did not always have lead-in grooves and a final groove spiral for tripping the mechanism. Capehart was fired again, this time from his own company, but a few years later the Capehart became the most impressive machine on the market. Its elaborate record changer played both sides of a stack of intermixed 10-inch and 12-inch records, and the machine had good sound for the period; it was slowly improved. Coleman Hawkins owned one in the late 1940s that cost $1,000, but most Americans never saw one, because the price put it out of reach.
Meanwhile, Capehart took his Simplex to Wurlitzer, whose sales of pipe organs and player pianos were falling, and became the company's vice-president and sales manager. The Simplex played only one side of each record, but was robust and reliable. Prohibition had been repealed, so a great many new taverns opened up, and most of them wanted mechanical music. In 1933 there were about 25,000 jukeboxes in operation in the USA, of which only 266 were Wurlitzer's; in 1935 there were 100,000, and in 1936 Wurlitzer alone shipped nearly 45,000 machines. It remained the leader of the industry for more than a decade. The record industry was in such bad shape during the Depression that in 1936, according to C.A. Schicke's Revolution In Sound, more records were imported from England than were manufactured in the USA; there can be no doubt that the jukebox revived the industry. One important advance was in the stylus: in a jukebox the 'needle' had to last for hundreds of plays before being replaced, so the standard was soon greatly improved.
The term 'jukebox' did not become common until the mid-1930s. It probably comes from the Gullah 'jook' or 'joog', meaning 'disorderly' or 'wicked' and perhaps ultimately from the Wolof 'dzug', to live wickedly. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes a scholarly American source from 1941: to 'jouk' was to dance; to 'go joukin' ' was to go pub-crawling. The term 'juke joint' was certainly current; blues singer Walter Roland recorded 'Jookit Jookit' for Vocalion in 1933. (A character in Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending of 1958 says 'I'd like to go out jooking with you tonight.')
Wurlitzer's Model 24 was the first to offer twenty-four selections instead of twelve or sixteen. Capehart sold the machines to independent jukebox operators, rather than directly to the taverns and restaurant owners, thus ensuring that the machines were regularly serviced and the records changed. He built up such an effective distribution system that by the time he left Wurlitzer his own Packard company could not compete with it. (After the Second World War he left the business, serving three terms in the U.S. Senate from Indiana.)
Canadian-born David Rockola had a perfect name for the jukebox industry; his pinball-machine business went broke in 1930, but he bought the patents of the old Gabel company and, with the help of his creditors, Rock-Ola competed with Seeburg (formed in 1907 as a piano company by a Swedish immigrant) for second place in the USA jukebox business behind Wurlitzer. In 1948 Seeburg's engineer M. W. Kenney developed the first machine to offer a hundred selections -- it held fifty 78s, of which either side could be selected -- and the Selectomatic mechanism became nearly ubiquitous. Of all these, only Rock-Ola was still making jukeboxes in the early 1980s. Seeburg had got into anti-trust trouble, and when Wurlitzer left the jukebox business in 1974, the company destroyed all its files and spare parts. Most of the principals are now dead, so the definitive history of the industry will probably never be written.
Jukebox cabinets became an extravaganza of light and moulded plastic in the late 1930s. Wurlitzer's Model 24 had been the first to use illuminated plastics in its design; after wartime shutdown, designer Paul Fuller produced the most famous jukebox of all, the Model 1015, of which Wurlitzer shipped over 56,000. Nils Miller at Seeburg was another influential designer. Paradoxically, these masterpieces of kitsch are rare and valuable today because they were too well built to wear out; Wurlitzer accepted trade-ins of any make, and then destroyed them.
The record companies were not slow to understand the importance of the jukebox business. In many parts of the country hillbillies and blacks were more likely to hear their own recording artists on a jukebox than on the radio; people who could not afford to buy a radio could sip a beer and listen to music played by other people's coins in the jukebox. Not only did the jukebox use up so many records that it rescued the record industry from the Depression, but retail sales began to improve as people liked the records they heard on jukeboxes, at a time when recorded music on the radio was not yet omnipresent. Small-group jazz was ideal: small-group recordings were cheaper to make than big-band ones, especially if the musicians were black.
Coleman Hawkins and Henry 'Red' Allen co-led three sessions in 1933 that resulted in ten lovely sides aimed at this market. Allen's first recordings in 1929 were credited to Henry Allen, Jr, and his Orchestra, because his father was a prominent New Orleans bandleader. The trumpeter worked for Fletcher Henderson and many other leaders, and was unfairly but widely regarded as an Armstrong imitator for many years; in fact, he was always his own man, and in the mid-1950s, on reunion sessions with Hawkins, sounded as much like Miles Davis as he did like Armstrong. He was also a vocalist of great charm, and the ten 1933 sides capture an era that is gone for ever. Made quickly and cheaply for budget labels like Perfect and Banner, and with whichever sidemen they could pick up (such as Russell Procope, Dicky Wells, Benny Morton and Horace Henderson on some tracks), the recordings are mostly of Tin Pan Alley songs that white artists had turned down.
The most successful small group of all, both on the jukeboxes and in the charts, was led by the pianist who was nicknamed Filthy by his friends in Harlem. Thomas Wright 'Fats' Waller played the piano by ear as a child, slowing down a piano roll to learn 'Carolina Shout'. He then enlisted James P. Johnson as his teacher, who also became something of a substitute father. Waller's father was a lay preacher who could not control his wayward son; they did not get along, and Fats probably never got over the loss of his mother when he was a teenager. He developed an enormous appetite for food, drink, women and song that he could never restrain, and an outsized talent to match.
As a teenager playing the organ in a Harlem cinema he gave some lessons to a boy from Red Bank named William Basie. Later he studied formally himself, knowing that he had to discipline his talent. He made piano rolls, and his first (acoustic) gramophone sides were piano solos, 'Muscle Shoals Blues' and 'Birmingham Blues' (1922). He also accompanied blues singers such as Caroline Johnson ('Ain't Got Nobody to Grind My Coffee'), Alberta Hunter ('You Can't Do What My Last Man Did') and Sara Martin. Having written 'Squeeze Me' with Clarence Williams, he accompanied Clarence and Sara in duets ('Squabbling Blues', 'I'm Certainly Gonna See About That').
He worked in Chicago in 1925, jamming with Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, and playing solo piano at a hotel; he told a story about being kidnapped to play at a birthday party for Al Capone, who stuffed hundred-dollar bills in his pocket. In November 1926 he began recording for Ralph Peer on the pipe organ in a disused church in Camden, New Jersey; Handy's 'St Louis Blues' and Waller's own 'Lenox Avenue Stomp' were good enough to get him invited back. Early in 1927 he recorded a series of improvisations with titles like 'Soothin' Syrup Stomp' and 'Sloppy Water Blues'; counting alternative takes, there were fifteen tracks. Let loose with feet as well as hands on what he called the instrument of his heart, he was already a giant talent; the sheer beauty and obvious joy in music-making on the unusual instrument is unlike anything else ever recorded. In May he recorded 'Sugar', a Tin Pan Alley hit that has had many recordings, Handy's 'Beale Street Blues' and 'I'm Goin' to See My Ma', credited on record labels to one C. Todd: all three were recorded both as organ solos and on organ with vocals by Alberta Hunter. 'I'm Goin' to See My Ma (and try to find my pa)' is a sort of happy tear-jerker: you can see Alberta there on the railway platform, at the height of the Jazz Age and just before the Great Depression, perhaps with a cardboard suitcase tied up with clothes-line, happy to be going home, the place where they have to let you in.
Further sessions in 1927 yielded more organ solos, notably a beautiful 'I Ain't Got Nobody', as well as a few piano solos and some organ sides with a combo. In 1928 Waller played 'Beale Street Blues' on the organ at Carnegie Hall (with Handy's blessing), and played piano with an orchestra in a performance of James P. Johnson's Yamekraw. (Johnson was not allowed the night off from conducting Keep Shufflin'.)
In 1929 came Fats Waller and his Buddies. In We Called It Music Eddie Condon tells the story of being detailed to get Fats to the recording session in New York on the first day of March. Condon got him out of bed, fortified with liquid ham'n'eggs and into a taxi, where he wrote the quintet numbers 'The Minor Drag' and 'Harlem Fuss', the titles of which were reversed on the record: 'Harlem Fuss' is a slow drag, while 'The Minor Drag' is a romp. At the same session he recorded piano solos 'Numb Fumblin' ' and 'Handful of Keys'. Among other solo piano recordings is 'Ain't Misbehavin' ', which he had written for Hot Chocolates that year; Waller's recording, and those by Louis Armstrong, bandleader Leo Reisman, Gene Austin, Ruth Etting, and Bill Robinson with Irving Mills, were all hit records. Another solo was 'Valentine Stomp', a tribute to Hazel Valentine, who ran a Harlem good-time house called the Daisy Chain where Fats liked to hang out. (It was later also celebrated in Count Basie's 'Swingin' at the Daisy Chain'.)
At the end of the year there were more Buddies sessions, this time with a bigger band, including Condon, Red Allen and Jack Teagarden, and singers. 'Looking Good But Feelin' Bad' and 'I Need Someone Like You', both Waller songs, are sung by a male quartet, while 'Ridin' But Walkin' ' and 'Won't You Get Up Off It, Please?' were instrumentals and 'When I'm Alone' (not a Waller song) had a pop vocal by one Orlando Robinson. Still another session the same month, by 'Jimmie Johnson and his Orchestra', featured two songs by J.C. (Jimmie) Johnson (another pianist, who probably used his initials so as not to be confused with James P.): 'You've Got to be Modernistic' and 'You Don't Understand' were sung by a male trio (the latter a sweet ballad also recorded by Bessie Smith). In the band were King Oliver, Dave Nelson and both James P. and Waller on pianos.
In the same year crooner Gene Austin bailed Waller out of jail. According to Maurice Waller, the judge was angry because Waller persistently fell behind with his alimony payments, and Waller was let off because Austin told the judge that Waller was needed at a recording session that afternoon, and that if he was not there, it would put several men out of work. So Waller went along to the session, where he and Austin (himself a southerner) were dismayed to find that the other musicians would not play with 'Austin's nigger', who had to be put at the other end of the studio behind a screen, and with a separate microphone. The song recorded was Waller's 'Your Fate is in My Hands', with words by Billy Rose.
The record dates dried up as the Depression began to bite. There were two piano duets with Bennie Payne on Victor in 1930, and two piano solos on Columbia in 1931, on which he sang, accompanying himself, his own songs 'I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby (and My Baby's Crazy 'Bout Me)' (words by Alex Hill) and 'Draggin' My Poor Heart Around', revealing a charming high baritone. The Lion claimed credit for getting Fats to sing, but his writing partner Andy Razaf said that when they went the rounds of publishers hawking their songs, Fats's singing would sell them better than his own.
Tunes poured out of Waller, but he was profligate in more ways than one, and often sold songs outright when he needed money; the suspicion persists that he sold now-famous tunes to Jimmy McHugh. Publishers frequently paid an advance to acquire a song, but would then forget to pay royalties; Waller and Razaf got their own back by selling the same lead sheet to several different publishers, sometimes all in the same building on the same day. They wrote scores of songs that were never even published, but their best known, apart from 'Ain't Misbehavin' ', include: '(What Did I Do to be So) Black and Blue', an affecting song that takes a swipe at racism, also used in Hot Chocolates and superbly recorded by Louis Armstrong; 'Honeysuckle Rose', from the same year (1929), which seems to have been a variation on 'Tea for Two' (he interpolated them on a piano solo in 1937); 'Blue, Turning Grey Over You', 'Keepin' Out of Mischief Now' and 'Ain't-cha Glad?' Razaf also wrote lyrics for many other composers. (Andreamenentania Paul Razafinkeriefo was descended from the royal family of Madagascar; his biography, Black and Blue '92 by Barry Singer, is more than worthwhile.)
Waller also wrote 'I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling' with Rose, and recorded it with the Rhythmakers and vocalist Billy Banks (who had a skill for happy scat and recorded under a great many names with a different lineup each time). Waller recorded with Don Redman's studio groups, Red McKenzie and Ted Lewis; a recording with one of Jack Teagarden's studio bands is notable for the repartee between Teagarden and Waller on 'You Rascal You' and 'That's What I Like About You'. He played the organ for a popular late-night radio programme in Cincinnati (and each morning the cleaner had to remove several empty gin bottles from the organ loft).
In 1934, as the new jukebox industry was beginning to take off and the record business struggled out of the Depression, Victor invited him back, to record with a combo as Fats Waller and his Rhythm, and jukebox as well as jazz history was made. The group included guitarist Al Casey (a teenager when Waller hired him), Gene 'Honey Bear' Sedric on reeds (one of Sam Wooding's favourite players in his European band), Bill Coleman and then Herman Autrey on trumpet, Charles Turner or (later) Cedric Wallace on bass and Slick Jones, Yank Porter or Harry Dial on drums. They were an instant success.
The songs from Broadway shows that we now regard as standards were often not pop hits at the time, but for the first few years Waller's hits came from some of the era's best Tin Pan Alley hacks. Among Waller's 1934 sessions were James P. Johnson's charming 'A Porter's Love Song to a Chambermaid' (words by Razaf) and 'I Wish I Were Twins', by Edgar DeLange (of Hudson and DeLange), with words by Frank Loesser, one of the great lyricists; 'Two Sleepy People', written by Loesser and Hoagy Carmichael, was a number one hit for Wailer in 1938. (Loesser wrote dummy tunes for his own lyrics until his own 'Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition' was a huge wartime hit; from then on he wrote both words and music, creating such songs as 'Baby It's Cold Outside' and 'On a Slow Boat to China'. His masterpiece, the show Guys and Dolls in 1950, which included 'If I Were a Bell', was followed by The Most Happy Fella in 1956 and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1961.)
Also in 1934 came Waller and Razaf's 'How Can You Face Me', together with the pop songs 'Then I'll Be Tired of You', 'Don't Let It Bother You', 'Sweetie Pie' and 'Believe It, Beloved'. Like Billie Holiday, Waller recorded tunes that were new at the time; nobody knew whether they would be hits or not, and some survived only because he recorded them, such as 'Dream Man (Let Me Dream Some More)' and 'Do Me a Favor (Marry Me)'. Among the writers were J.C. Johnson, who wrote 'Believe It, Beloved', as well as Bessie Smith's 'Empty Bed Blues' and 'Dusky Stevedore' (recorded by Frankie Trumbauer with Bix and many others). Mack Gordon wrote 'Don't Let It Bother You' (suitable for the recovery period: 'Take it on the chin / Give a little grin / Everything will be okay!'). Arthur Schwartz and Yip Harburg wrote 'Then I'll Be Tired of You'; Schwartz wrote 'Got a Bran' New Suit' and many more with lyricist Howard Dietz. Dietz also wrote with Kern, Gershwin, Vernon Duke and Sammy Fain; Harburg wrote 'April in Paris' with Vernon Duke and, with Harold Arlen, 'It's Only a Paper Moon', 'Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe' and the songs for The Wizard of Oz.
Nobody did more than Fats Waller, except Louis Armstrong himself, to bring jazz to popular music. If he liked a song, he could do it more or less straight, but he often kidded a song unmercifully, improvising his own additions to the lyrics as well as vocal ejaculations during instrumental breaks and bridges. Often he would blurt out (sometimes salacious) tag-lines at the end, such as 'No, Lady, we can't haul your ashes for twenty-five cents. That'd be bad business.' 'I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter', a sweet love song by Fred Ahlert and Joe Young, was played straight. 'Truckin' ' was written for a Cotton Club revue by Rube Bloom and Ted Koehler; it became a dance fad (a sequel was 'Let's Get Drunk and Truck', by Tampa Red in 1936). 'All My Life' was a pretty ballad by Sidney Mitchell and Sammy Stept that had several hit recordings, including one by Teddy Wilson with Ella Fitzgerald. 'A Little Bit Independent' was by Edgar Leslie and Joe Burke. As is often true of the pop charts, the best records were not usually the biggest hits, but the Waller number one 'It's a Sin to Tell a Lie' (by Billy Mayhew) is an exception: an uptempo romp, it suited the full Waller treatment: 'Get on out there and tell your lie,' he demands of Sedric before his clarinet solo, and ends with one of his favourite tags, 'What'd I say?!'
Waller was his own worst enemy, so profligate that he was always in need of money. The jukebox operators naturally preferred to buy cheaper records, and in 1939 Victor transferred Waller to its cheaper Bluebird label, the better to compete with Kapp's Decca label for the mechanical business. For whatever reason, towards the end of his career some of the songs were so bad that not even he could save them: 'Little Curly Hair in a High Chair', 'My Mommie Sent Me to the Store', 'Abercrombie Had a Zombie'. But the jazz content was nearly always present, and there are an extraordinary number of gems: definitive versions of delightful songs like 'Lulu's Back in Town' (by Al Dubin and Harry Warren), 'Rosetta' (by Earl Hines, on which Fats plays celesta), 'I Believe in Miracles' (organ), 'What's the Reason I'm Not Pleasin' You?', 'There'll be Some Changes Made', 'I Used to Love You (But It's All Over Now)', 'I'll Dance at Your Wedding' (with the tag 'Go on, get married again!') and 'The Curse of an Aching Heart' ('Bump, bump, bump, bump! That's the curse back atcha!'). The mixture of jazz, jive and beauty is unique. 'Your Feet's Too Big', a charming non-love song with the tag 'One never knows, do one?', was a hit in 1939, followed by 'Your Socks Don't Match' and 'Hold Tight (I Want Some Sea Food, Mama)'. (Few knew that the last was about cunnilingus.)
The canard is heard that Waller's sidemen were somehow second-rate; certainly his group did not survive the loss of one of the most ebullient musical personalities of the century, but again and again on the recordings his men played exquisitely apposite solos. Waller himself is still admired, for example by Cecil Taylor 'for the depth of his notes'. There were more piano solos, among them 'Clothes Line Ballet', 'Alligator Crawl', 'African Ripples', Duke Ellington's 'Ring Dem Bells' and 'Carolina Shout'.
Waller visited Europe twice; in London in 1938 he recorded pipe organ solos, and with such sidemen as trombonist George Chisholm and drummer Edmundo Ros (later the leader of a popular Latin-American band). On a 1939 trip he recorded again on pipe organ, and also made the London Suite, a set of six impressions borrowing themes here and there from some of his other tunes. In Paris he played the organ at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, an experience at the 'God box' that he regarded as one of the great honours of his life.
He led a big band on one tour. He also recorded with a protégée, pianist and vocalist Una Mae Carlisle, who sang straight to Waller's clowning on 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love' (1939). He made recordings both solo and with his combo for Muzak (the recordings were unreleased for years) and on V-discs for the armed services, including 'The Reefer Song' ('I dreamed about a reefer five feet long . . .'). His own Carnegie Hall concert in January 1942 was a shambles, because he was almost too drunk to play the second half. In December of 1943 his body gave up the struggle, and he died of pneumonia on a train between engagements. He was only thirty-nine.
Following Victor's jukebox success with Waller's records, John Hammond talked Brunswick into a series of small-group sides led by pianist Teddy Wilson, who acted as a contractor, hiring whichever musicians happened to be in town for each date. Wilson, who was from a middle-class background, left college to become a full-time musician; his first recordings as a soloist in 1934 were rejected by Columbia, who did not appreciate his understated elegance, a stylistic influence for generations. From July 1935 to 1942, however, he made nearly three hundred sides for Brunswick, many featuring vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and, above all, Billie Holiday. None of the participants received any royalties, but the records were so popular that the following year Brunswick began recording Holiday under her own name. From late 1937 Wilson was often succeeded on Holiday's records by Claude Thornhill, Eddie Heywood and others, but her sessions did not stray far from Wilson's original conception.
Billie Holiday was born Elinore Harris in Philadelphia; neither her mother nor her maternal grandmother had been married, so the surname had passed down on the female side for three generations. Her father, Clarence Holiday, played guitar with Fletcher Henderson and Don Redman. She had a turbulent early life, in many ways the opposite of that of the urbane, well-educated Wilson, but, like him, she had an innate dignity that never left her, and she was a great jazz musician. When she was young, her voice was pretty and sweet, but it already had the unique vocal colour that was all that remained when she died; if the essence of singing popular songs is to interpret them, she was one of the greatest. She was certainly the essence of languor, always singing behind the beat; she brought high spirits, a laid-back sexiness or deep sadness to her work, depending on the song, but always showed a yearning wistfulness.
Her first recordings were sides with a Benny Goodman studio group in 1933. When she sang on Wilson's first session, she was just twenty, and he was twenty-two: 'Miss Brown to You' and 'What a Little Moonlight Can Do' became classics. Holiday's soul-mate was Lester Young. It is said that they were never lovers, but his solos with her vocals on tracks like 'A Sailboat in the Moonlight', 'On the Sentimental Side', 'Back in Your Own Back Yard' and 'When a Woman Loves a Man' (all 1937) were the musical equivalent of making love. He named her Lady Day, and called her mother the Duchess; she named him Prez, thinking that along with a Duke, an Earl, a Count and a King of Swing there ought to be a President.
Holiday recorded for Milt Gabler's Commodore label, and then for Decca, which backed her with strings: like many jazz artists of that era, she hankered after legitimacy, in the belief that string arrangements bestowed a cachet. In the 1950s she recorded for Verve and American Columbia (CBS, with strings conducted by Ray Ellis), and toured Europe; her excellent accompanists included Bobby Tucker, Jimmy Rowles and Mal Waldron. Her career went slowly downhill; she was famous for being a heroin addict, but it was alcohol that killed her, in 1959. Even her later performances were extraordinarily moving. On a famous Timex TV jazz programme in 1957 she sang her own 'Fine and Mellow', and Young was there too; they had not long to live, but they still had something to say to each other through their music.
There are too many masterpieces among Wilson's sides to describe them all, but among the highlights is a Chicago session of May 1936, which featured the bass player Israel Crosby, still a teenager, notably on the dramatic 'Blues in C Sharp Minor'; 'Warmin' Up' is a high-spirited tribute to the small-group jazz style just before modern jazz began to evolve. An unusual West Coast date in September 1937, with Wilson, Red Norvo on xylophone, John Simmons on bass and Harry James on trumpet, yielded intimate treatments of Waller's 'Honeysuckle Rose' and 'Ain't Misbehavin''. 'Just a Mood', which stretched to two sides of a 10-inch 78, was an unusually beautiful original.
The success of Wilson's contractor method of making records may have inspired Victor to hire Lionel Hampton to do the same thing in 1937. In his youth Hampton played snare drum in a drum and bugle corps and became a newsboy in Chicago so he could beat the drum in a band sponsored by the Chicago Defender. Somewhere along the way he also became familiar with the marimba, and soon hit the road as a drummer; he first recorded in 1929 with Paul Johnson's Quality Serenaders. As a member of Les Hite's band when it backed Louis Armstrong in a Los Angeles club Hampton played Louis's solo from 'Song of the Islands' on orchestral bells, and when the band backed Louis on his recording of 'Memories of You', Hampton was encouraged to become the first jazzman to record playing the vibraphone. Gladys, his ambitious soon-to-be wife, prompted him to concentrate on it. A few years later he was leading a band at the Paradise Club, and among the musicians sitting in were Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and Wilson. The Goodman quartet first recorded in August 1936, and both Wilson and Hampton became famous.
Hampton was more of a showman than Wilson, and moved from chair to chair on various sides. Most of his nearly a hundred small-group items were instrumental, except where he himself sang, as on the charming 'I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)' (the original issue of which was backed with 'Drum Stomp', based on 'Crazy Rhythm', with Hamp on drums) and 'On the Sunny Side of the Street'. One of his best-known records, the latter featured Johnny Hodges, and was backed with an uptempo romp on Vincent Youmans's 'I Know That You Know'. From the same date as 'Drum Stomp' came 'Piano Stomp' (based on 'Shine'), and Hampton also played piano on 'Twelfth Street Rag' (1939) at what seemed like an incredibly fast tempo, yet it was not too fast for his fleet two-fingered style. He played the right-hand piano part on 'Wizzin' the Wizz' while Clyde Hart played the left-hand part, and drums on 'Big Jam in the Wigwam' while Cozy Cole concentrated on the tom-toms.
Among the musicians at a session in September 1939 were Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry and Ben Webster, as well as the young Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Christian in the rhythm section; that date included 'Hot Mallets' and Carter's 'When Lights are Low'. The parade of sidemen used on the Wilson and Hampton records names most of the stars of the bands of Ellington, Basie, Calloway and Goodman. Pianist Jess Stacy was an asset at the first few Hampton sessions, and Hampton used no fewer than eleven of the best drummers of the era, not counting himself. The rhythm section on 'Jack the Bellboy' and 'Central Avenue Breakdown', made in Hollywood in 1940, was the Nat Cole Trio. 'Bellboy' has at least three hands on the keyboard.
As Stanley Dance pointed out in his notes for an RCA set of the complete Hampton sessions, one of the joys of the recordings is the chance to hear musicians who were not recorded often enough. Dance singles out pianist Marlowe Morris, who was influenced by Art Tatum. Hampton's showmanship was always evident, and as his series wore on, along with all the beautiful jazz there was much joyful jive, with some forward-sounding harmonies and more than a hint of the West Coast rhythm and blues that would soon be under way. Listen, for example, to '(Latch on to Some) Dough-rey-mi', written by Southern, Cole and Hampton, and sung by the 'Hampton Rhythm Boys'. The interaction of Cole's piano and Hampton's vibraphone on this track occasionally predicts the sound of the George Shearing Quintet, which would be enormously popular a decade later. Another interesting thing about the whole series is the guitar players, from the quiet competence of Goodman's sideman Allen Reuss to Danny Barker, Charlie Christian, Al Casey, Freddie Green, Ernest Ashley, Teddy Bunn, Irving Ashby and Cole's Oscar Moore, several of whom played electric instruments.
The Nat Cole Trio used an uncommon instrumentation: piano, guitar and bass. Allegedly, the drummer didn't show up for their first gig and they decided they didn't need one. Cole later became one of the most popular vocalists in the world, and deservedly so, but the trio's records did well on the jukeboxes, and it is too easily forgotten that his modern-sounding Hines-inspired keyboard was very influential, on such different musicians as Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans.
Hampton formed a big band which began recording for Decca in late 1941, and led it well into the 1950s. It was a crowd-pleaser -- critics often ridiculed its theatrical aspect -- but among its stars was young tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet. (Critics overlooked his skill as a ballad player for years because it didn't fit their thesis of Jacquet as a honker; he began recording as a leader in 1945, and in 1988 led a big band at jazz festivals.) Hampton was still a sure bet in the late 1980s if you wanted to have a good time; his ability to swing and to inspire younger musicians has had an incalculable effect.
An unusual and successful sextet was that of bass player John Kirby, the 'biggest little band in the land'. The group began to come together as 52nd Street in New York became a meeting place for jazz fans. On their first hit record (as the Claude Thornhill Orchestra in 1937) they backed Maxine Sullivan singing 'Loch Lomond'; that band included Thornhill (piano and arranger), Frankie Newton (trumpet), Pete Brown (alto saxophone), Babe Russin (tenor saxophone), Buster Bailey (clarinet), Kirby (double bass) and O'Neill Spencer (drums). They were Buster Bailey and his Rhythm Busters with slightly different personnel, then John Kirby and his Onyx Club Boys with the classic line-up, and later John Kirby and his Orchestra: Kirby, Spencer, Bailey, Charlie Shavers (trumpet), Russell Procope (alto saxophone) and Billy Kyle (piano). Shavers's composition 'Undecided' was a hit in 1939; Shavers was almost as highly regarded as Roy Eldridge then, and also wrote 'Pastel Blue'; most of the Kirby group's arrangements were his.
Kirby and Sullivan were married, and the band became one of the most successful black groups in the country, performing at high-class hotel dates and on a radio show called Flow Gently Sweet Rhythm, on which Sullivan sang folksongs such as 'If I Had a Ribbon Bow' and 'Molly Malone' (recorded under her name for a different label). The group also appeared on Duffy's Tavern and the Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, a popular pseudo-jazz radio spot directed by NBC staffer Henry 'Hot Lips' Levine; it featured Dinah Shore, and had guests like Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton. All this was extraordinary exposure for a black band, and a tribute to its musical qualities. It was a quiet chamber group (Shavers usually played with a mute) and the arrangements, though tricky and highly stylized, were studded with lively solos. Its similarity to Wilson's stemmed from its elegance and the presence of Billy Kyle, who worked with Louis Armstrong's All Stars from 1953. Anybody who played with that group in its later years was taken for granted, but Kyle had already been an influential and underrated stylist for many years by then. His technique was the equal of Wilson's, but he had a brighter and more rhythmic side, perhaps influenced by Earl Hines. As J. R. Taylor put it in a sleeve-note for the Smithsonian Institution: 'Kyle's rising tremolo lunge behind Bailey [in 'Sweet Georgia Brown'] is probably unique in jazz accompaniment before Cecil Taylor.'
Kirby and Sullivan were divorced, the war wrecked the band's line-up and the post-war world was not interested: the group's big success lasted only a couple of years, and its style had no sequel. This was partly for the same reason that such excellent musicians as Shavers, Billy Butterfield, Roy Eldridge, Rex Stewart and Red Allen were, in general, not as highly rewarded as they should have been. After the war there was an absurd critical division into 'dixieland' and 'modern' camps, so that the great mainstream graduates of the Swing Era got lost in the shuffle, a loss which record companies and broadcasters did nothing to prevent.
Procope, of course, subsequently played for twenty-eight years with Duke Ellington; Shavers played in the interracial studio band of Raymond Scott (later music director on the radio and television chart show Your Hit Parade, whose vocalist, Dorothy Collins, he married). Scott's arrangements, for example, 'In an Eighteenth Century Dining Room' and 'Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals', were slick and intricate, like Kirby's, but had little jazz content. Shavers remained popular among those with long memories. On a tour in England in 1969, according to Digby Fairweather, he was playing brilliantly, and was delighted to find electrical sockets in hotel bathrooms marked 'For Shavers Only'. He said, 'Wait till Eldridge sees this!'
52nd Street in New York became a place where the sheer quantity of good music to be heard was almost unbelievable. One of the first big acts on the Street, just as Prohibition was repealed in 1933, was scat singer Leo Watson and his Five Spirits of Rhythm, a group which used a suitcase as a drum and played with whisk brooms and three tipples (novelty guitars that sounded like ukuleles). Brass players Joe Riley and Eddie Farley used a novelty tune in their act on the Street; 'The Music Goes Round and Round (and It Comes Out Here)' suddenly became a huge fluke hit, and the Riley-Farley Orchestra had one of the money-making versions. Violinist Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys, with Jonah Jones on trumpet and Cozy Cole on drums, made a name on the Street in 1936 with 'I'se a Muggin'' and 'You'se a Viper' (with a vocal by Jones). The Kirby Sextet too started on the Street. By the early 1940s Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller and many more might virtually all be heard playing on the Street at once. The Street was mostly a venue for small groups, but Count Basie's band first made it big there in 1937 at the Famous Door (whose name derived from an old door covered with autographs). Other clubs, mostly in what were called 'English basements' under brownstone houses, included the Hickory House, the Yacht Club, Kelly's Stable and the Three Deuces. The Street was so successful that musicians starting a club where they could meet were soon pushed out of their own place by the tourists and fans. Today the brownstones have been replaced by steel and glass buildings occupied by banks.
Independent labels were being formed for the specific purpose of recording small-group jazz; the first one in the USA was Commodore. Milt Gabler began selling records in his father's radio shop in New York in 1926; the Commodore Music Shop became a hang-out for fans and musicians, and the records soon replaced the radio parts. Gabler was responsible for several firsts: his was probably the first record shop to have browsing bins arranged by artist, and he was the first to reissue classic discs. He began by custom-ordering pressings of out-of-print records, because he knew he could sell three hundred copies of, say, 'Pinetop's Boogie Woogie', even if it took a couple of years. But in the case of that title Vocalion decided that if Gabler wanted to buy so many copies of it, they would press a few extra and sell them to his competitors. So Gabler formed the first record club, the United Hot Clubs of America. He also hired Jazz clubs on Sunday afternoons offering free jam sessions to music fans. (When other clubs copied Gabler, they charged admission, but still did not pay the musicians.)
The world's first specialised jazz record label was Swing in France, which began because too few jazz records were available there. The first release in 1937 was the legendary Benny Carter session. 'Honeysuckle Rose' and 'Crazy Rhythm' were played by a lineup that Carter has re-created several times: himself and Alix Combelle on alto saxophones and Coleman Hawkins and Andre Ekyan on tenor; the rhythm section included Django Reinhardt on guitar, Stephane Grappelli on piano, Eugene D'Hellemes on bass and Tommy Benford on drums. In January 1938 Gabler's first recording session was with Eddie Condon and his Windy City Seven: Pee Wee Russell, Bud Freeman, Bobby Hackett, drummer George Wettling, bassist Artie Bernstein and Jess Stacy (whose hands were still sore the day after Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall concert). The horn-men were all among the finest musicians of their generation, but still underrated by the general public because they were not recorded often enough or properly promoted by the music industry, interested then as now primarily in a fast buck. Gabler was also the first to list the complete personnel on the record label.
In April 1939 Columbia lent Billie Holiday to Commodore because they did not want to issue 'Strange Fruit', by poet Lewis Allen, an early protest song, about lynching, which Billie had made up her mind to record. Its tragic power is undiminished today. The backing band, with which Billie was appearing at Cafe Society, was led by trumpeter Frankie Newton, who had left the Kirby Sextet just as it went on to its great success (he and Kirby were rivals for the affection of Maxine Sullivan). Cafe Society, a club started by a shoe salesman named Barney Josephson, with some help and advice from John Hammond and others, was a place which practiced discrimination only in favour of good music, and was popular for a decade. One of the other sides made that day was 'Fine and Mellow', which Gabler titled and helped to write; it was intended to be similar to 'Billie's Blues', which Holiday had recorded in 1936 at her first session as a leader. When Decca Records rang to inquire about the new song, Gabler knew that it must be getting jukebox plays, and he quickly registered its composition in Holiday's name before any covers were made.
From 1941 Gabler also worked for Decca; but he kept Commodore going into the 1950s. The complete limited-edition Commodore reissue program embarked upon by Mosaic Records of Stamford, Connecticut, in 1988, which filled dozens of LPs in three massive sets, is full of priceless material, the peak of which (for me, anyway) is the previously mentioned Kansas City Six session of September 1938, with Lester Young playing gorgeous clarinet (on a metal instrument), Buck Clayton on trumpet, Eddie Durham on electric guitar and Basie's rhythm section of Freddie Green, Walter Page and Jo Jones. Not to mention fourteen solos by Willie 'the Lion' Smith, Coleman Hawkins sides, clarinet quartet recordings by Edmond Hall and Pee Wee Russell, and much, much more.
When Harry Lim emigrated to the USA from Batavia (now Djakarta) in Indonesia in 1939, he was already a jazz fan. He began producing jam sessions and from 1943 produced records for Eric Bernay's Keynote, until then a left-wing folk label which had recorded the Almanac Singers. One of the first jazz dates at Keynote was also the first solo session by Dinah Washington, a unique and still influential vocalist who had been discovered and re-named by Lionel Hampton. (Her real name was Ruth Lee Jones.) Leonard Feather produced the date and wrote most of the material; 'Salty Papa' and 'Evil Gal Blues' were hits in the black chart. The group from Hampton's band included Texas tenor saxophonist Arnett Cobb (making his recording debut) and pianist Milt Buckner (later more famous as an organist, one of the inventors of the 'locked hands' chordal keyboard style that was soon done to death by a generation of keyboard players). Hampton came along to help out, playing drums on one of the four sides recorded and piano on another. The best-known (and best-selling) Lim productions were those by Lester Young at a session of four tunes, made the day before the Dinah Washington date, in a quartet with Johnny Guarnieri, Slam Stewart and Sid Catlett. It was bettered only by four more tracks three months later, this time 12-inch 78s by a quintet with Basie and his rhythm section. (The one track of which an alternative take was not made is 'Lester Leaps Again' -- it was a masterpiece in one take.)
In less than four years Lim made well over three hundred sides. His main aim was to indulge himself (though it earned him everlasting gratitude from jazz fans) by recording people who did not get many chances to record under their own names, such as trumpeter Joe Thomas, Chicago guitarist George Barnes, Milt Hinton, Willie Smith, Babe Russin, Manny Klein, tenor saxophonist Herbie Haymer and several members of the Woody Herman herd, including trombonist Bill Harris, bassist Chubby Jackson; also Red Norvo, trumpeters Jonah Jones and Roy Eldridge, Gene Sedric, Red Rodney . . . and too many more to list.
Of the several fine Coleman Hawkins dates, the most fascinating is the one with the Sax Ensemble of May 1944, at which 12" 78s were made. The group comprised Catlett (drums), Guarnieri (piano), Al Lucas (bass), Tab Smith (alto saxophone and arranger -- he had worked for Basie and Millinder, among others), Hawkins and Don Byas (tenor saxophones) and Harry Carney (baritone saxophone). The septet sounds like a much larger group, thanks to Smith's arrangements and the sound of four great reedmen playing together. To pick out just one track: 'On the Sunny Side of the Street' begins with a Smith solo (very different from that of Johnny Hodges on the classic recording of the same tune made by Lionel Hampton several years earlier) and ends with a dazzling Smith cadenza, which is several seconds longer on the second take and perfectly realized.
Keynote went out with a bang: two trio sessions by the young pianist Lennie Tristano, the last produced by Feather. Tristano's advanced harmonic ideas were enormously influential, but he concentrated on teaching rather than performing, and recorded all too little; the Keynote sessions yielded tracks that were not released for decades. Lim lost control (to Mercury Records) of recordings he had made using his own money; he later worked at the Liberty Music Shop (which, like Commodore, had its own label for a while) and, in its heyday from 1956 to 1973, for Sam Goody's record shop, where he was renowned as the world's most knowledgeable record-shop assistant. In 1972 he formed the Famous Door label and was one of those responsible for discovering Scott Hamilton, soon an enormously popular Swing Era style tenor saxophonist.
Other independent jazz labels of the period included HRS (Hot Record Society), Solo Art (which recorded, among others, Chicago's Jimmy Yancey, one of the most distinctive of boogie-woogie piano players, with the accent on the blues rather than the boogie), Bob Thiele's Signature label and, the most famous of all, Blue Note.
Thiele worked as an announcer on jazz radio shows in 1936, was a bandleader, editor and publisher of Jazz Magazine, and formed Signature in 1939, when he was still a teenager. He was among the first to record pianist Erroll Garner, and made small-group dates by Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Lockjaw Davis and Julian Dash. Some of the Hawkins and Young sides were 12-inch masters; it was typical of these small labels to attempt to give the artists room to blow, even though 12-inch records were less commercially viable. It was a Signature recording of Davis's 'Lockjaw' that gave him his nickname. Dash had played with Erskine Hawkins, and his tracks for Signature, with Kyle on piano, are fascinating examples of what was intended to get on Harlem jukeboxes in 1950; the smoochy 'My Silent Love' is drenched in echo. Thiele also recorded four sessions in 1944-5 by Flip Phillips, tenor saxophone star of Woody Herman's band, with other Hermanites in the backing groups. Three sessions with Anita O'Day in 1947-8 paid a dividend: the novelty 'Hi Ho Trailus Boot Whip', arranged by Sy Oliver, was a pop hit.
Blue Note was formed by German immigrant Alfred Lion in 1939 to record the boogie-woogie pianos of Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons. The Port of Harlem Jazzmen included Ammons, then Lewis, Frankie Newton and, on some tracks, Sidney Bechet, whose 'Summertime' was an instant classic. Lion was joined by his fellow Berliner and childhood friend, Frank Wolff. In 1941 they recorded Edmond Hall's quartet: Hall, Lewis (on celesta -- they recorded him on harpsichord the same year), Israel Crosby (bass) and Charlie Christian (acoustic guitar). Its 'Profoundly Blue' was a classic. Blue Note too made 12-inch sides. They often recorded at night, which was far more convenient for the musicians, and provided food and drink for them. The unusual attention to the artists' welfare and the distinctive label artwork (overseen by Wolff) heralded the beginning of an illustrious chapter in the record business. The label specialised in 'swingtets' led by tenor saxophonists John Hardee and Ike Quebec, whose 'Blue Harlem' (1944) was another jukebox hit. Quebec joined the staff, and it was due partly to his influence that Blue Note was the first to record Thelonious Monk as a leader, in 1947.
But that is getting ahead of our story. Blue Note was only one of the mostly independent labels documenting the changes in popular music in the 1940s, a decade that needs close attention.