Friday, July 27, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (2)

2. Benny Goodman & His Orchestra * Live from the Congress Hotel, 1935-36

There are many early performances of Benny Goodman's that might deserve placement on this list, and many by Artie Shaw that might lay claim to the number two spot. Goodman's stint on the Let's Dance  program, and his wild success at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1935 have both been cited as the beginning of the "Swing Era" and therefore have enough historical merit to garner consideration. Artie's recordings from the Cafe Rouge and the Blue Room are of such a high level of playing that they, on pure musical merit, could warrant this spot as well.

But these NBC broadcasts from 1935-36, from Goodman's time in Chicago immediately after the Los Angeles success, are important to both players, and therefore unique in the history of jazz clarinet.

By 1935, Artie Shaw had given up on the music business (not for the last time) and retired, at the ripe old age of 25, to become a novelist. He was in a marriage that was falling apart (also not for the last time), and living the life of a bohemian writer in a Pennsylvania farmhouse. One night as he was driving home, he was blown away by who he heard on the radio: an old rival who had challenged him for alto sax parts in the New York studios only a year or so before: Benny Goodman.

Shaw's farm was so remote, it didn't have electricity--so when he got home, he took his radio outside and hooked it up to the car battery. He was so impressed by what he heard that he wrote Goodman a letter praising him for his success.

Goodman's response probably did more to motivate Shaw than anything else could have. Instead of thanking him graciously, Goodman jabbed back "I'm gonna blackmail you [ with that letter.]" (Nolan pg 56). A fire was lit under Shaw to return to playing--Goodman was not going to let him go away from music quietly. I believe Benny responded that way because he knew how much talent Shaw possessed, and how good it would be for the entire music scene to have him back--including a rivalry that might add to their drawing power. Shaw claimed later to have loathed the rivalry, and even tried to suggest he didn't recognize it as such, but the signs were undeniable, and the influence of Goodman--the spur and challenge he presented--undoubtedly pushed Shaw to some of his greatest musical achievements.

Apart from the importance to the Goodman/Shaw rivalry, the Congress Hotel broadcasts represent another milestone in Benny's career. Swing was officially 'dance' music--it was supposed to exist for that specific purpose. But at the Congress Hotel in Chicago, a new thing happened. Music fans showed up--and they didn't want to dance. They wanted to listen--many of them simply standing on the dance floor with their eyes and ears attentively on the band. And when some tried to dance, they were booed off the floor. [Collier pg 170 f] Perhaps it was here that Benny first started to get a notion of the importance of swing as concert music--a notion that would eventually lead to Carnegie Hall, and change the public perception of jazz forever.


Works cited:

Artie Shaw: King of the Clarinet by Tom Nolan
Benny Goodman and the Swing Era by James Lincoln Collier.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Pete Fountain Write-In Campaign Begins!

Well, the voting just opened for the DownBeat Readers Poll, and I'm sorry to say Pete Fountain isn't on the ballot.

This simply shows that we need to get the word out, folks, and reverse a trend that has devalued the jazz clarinet.

DownBeat's voting pages all provide write-in boxes, so if you're a fan of his work, I encourage you to write in Pete Fountain's name for the Hall of Fame--as I just did.

We have till Midnight, August 21st to make our impact, so have at it!

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (1)

1. Benny Goodman & His Orchestra * Live at Carnegie Hall * 1938

Let's not kid ourselves: Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall concert was clearly the most important single event in the history of Big Band Clarinet. It marked the first time an all-jazz program was offered at the nation's most revered venue for classical performance, and had it flopped, the resulting clatter would have resounded throughout Goodman's career and altered the critical trajectory of jazz.

Goodman was the right man for the job in many ways. For one thing, he had already emphasized the history of the artform on his Camel Caravan radio show. This rare penchant for educating a popular audience probably paid dividends for his Carnegie Hall presentation, which featured a brief review of jazz history. This section emphasized the contributions of many artists, including Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie (some of Duke's men even performed in the sequence, and the Count himself performed). Some of the performances are more convincing than others, and the extended on-stage jam session on 'Honeysuckle Rose' might be considered a miscalculation. But even if this is concluded, there remains Goodman's unassailable intent, which was to help a subscription audience, who might have little understanding of what they were hearing, learn on the spot.

Over 80 years later, the recording still grips. Like the opening chords of Beethoven's 'Eroica', it is always bracing, and repeated listening never blunts the impact. The tension is palpable, and the soloing of Goodman, Harry James, Ziggy Elman, and Gene Krupa especially, are electrifying.

The concert contained an amazing breadth of material. There were standards like Gershwin's 'The Man I Love' and 'I Got Rhythm'; Irving Berlin's 'Blue Skies'; originals like 'Don't Be That Way' and 'Swingtime in the Rockies'; and ethnic numbers ranging from the Scottish 'Loch Lomond' to the Yiddish 'Bei Mir Bist du Schoen'. The concert confidently and unselfconsciously demonstrated that jazz was America's artistic voice--like Whitman's poetry and the nation itself, containing multitudes and belonging to all.

The performance of Jimmy Mundy's famous arrangement of 'Sing Sing Sing' has been written about at length in many other places. Suffice it to say here that the clarinet solos, with their poignant sense of loneliness and probing, alternating between commanding and pleading, and ending in a prayer-like ascent to double C, are among the most important ever played. Much has been made, rightly, of Jess Stacy's inspired solo which followed. Rarely noticed is that Stacy's solo would have been impossible had not Benny (and Harry James before him) set the musical mood perfectly.

Too often, swing era music is caricatured as 'fun', 'lighthearted', merely diverting music, as though the musicians involved were just having one big, carefree party while playing. But a tune like 'Sing Sing Sing' was hardly fun, nor did it express anything carefree or merely entertaining. Harry James said later:

I don't think I ever told anybody this, but I was going through a real mental thing and it was all built around 'Sing Sing Sing'. [...] [It] happened the first time time I was supposed to get up and play my chorus on 'Sing Sing Sing'. I just couldn't make it. I fell back in my chair. Ziggy [Elman] said to me, 'Get up!' but I couldn't; so when he saw what was happening, he got up and played my solo. I was completely out of my mind. It happened again another time, too, and so every time the band played 'Sing Sing Sing' I'd get bugged and scared it would start all over again. You know, that Stravinsky-type thing that the trombones and then the trumpets play just before the chorus? Well, that would really set me off. I tried to explain it to Benny, and I'd even ask him to play 'Sing Sing Sing' early in the evening, so I could relax the rest of the night. But of course, that was his big number and I couldn't blame him for wanting to hold off. So finally I just left the band. I couldn't trust myself anymore.
[quoted in James Lincoln Collier's Benny Goodman and the Swing Era, Oxford, 1989. Pg 222]

Whatever his fears, however this music might have rattled him, James gave a solo for the ages on that cold night in 1938.

If we listen to it with fresh ears, 'Sing Sing Sing' is driving, intense, and sometimes disturbing music. It wasn't nostalgic to the men who first performed it, and it needn't be now. I consider the Goodman Carnegie Hall performance of Mundy's arrangement to have been every bit as profound a statement as Vaughan Williams's sixth symphony. This is part of the reason that Carnegie Hall concert was such a success: the music equalled or surpassed the depth of what was usually played there.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Ten Essential Jazz Clarinet Recordings (10)

10. Artie Shaw * The "Complete" Gramercy 5 * 1940-1945

There were many recordings in the running for this final spot in my Ten Essential Jazz Clarinet Recordings series. Benny Goodman's Sextet recordings from the 1940s, and later in the 1950s were a worthy contender, as were the performances of Omer Simeon and Johnny Dodds in Jelly Roll Morton's 'Red Hot Peppers' sessions of 1926-27. I even flirted with the idea of adding Jimmie Noone's Apex Club recordings. But none of those could dislodge my conviction that Artie Shaw's Gramercy 5 recordings from the 1940s should bookend this list.

Shaw's first Gramercy 5 was unlike any other group in the history of jazz to that point, for at least one odd fact: the group employed a harpsichord instead of a piano. There were at least two reasons for this. First, from his earliest forays into band leading, Shaw pursued a concept he called "chamber jazz" in contrast to the loud bands of the day. Second, the Gramercy 5 recordings had a very specific purpose: they were 'juke tunes', recorded for the booming juke box market. As anyone who grew up in diners with jukeboxes can attest, these devices were very treble-heavy, which accounts in part for the success of 'jangle rock'--treble heavy guitar bands reproduce tolerably well on juke boxes.

The jangling of Shaw's harpsichord (played by Johnny Guarnieri on most of the recordings) presents a tantalizing option of where our culture might have headed if the adolescent phenomenon of rock n' roll hadn't been permitted to lobotomize the nation for commercial reasons. That musing aside, the early Gramercy 5 displays another extremely important aspect of Shaw's art, which is perhaps best called the poetics of jazz--a quality for which the literary-minded clarinetist was virtually unsurpassed in jazz history.

When listening to a Shaw tune, the attentive listener is always hit with extra-musical associations, often built around the lyrics. In the case of a tune like 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes', the lyrics inform the meaning of the performance--Shaw's romantic statement of the theme echoing the narrator's story of love, loss, and regret, while the harpsichord clucks along somewhat cynically-- the 'warning friends' of the lyrics--only softening at the end in sympathy with the reflective Shaw. Anyone who knew the lyrics of this popular song would have felt how perfectly, yet with such economy of means, this tune was expressed.

But this poetic wasn't relegated to standards with lyrics. Shaw's own 'Dr. Livingstone, I Presume' is a humorous trip through the world of Jazz through Artie's eyes. Beginning with 'Jungle beat' tom-toms used so often in every band from Ellington to Goodman, and associated with the African roots of jazz, Shaw eventually rips into a klezmer tinged solo--almost as though he was greeting Benny Goodman, the other famous Jewish jazz clarinetist, in jungles of Africa. Benny had recorded klezmer tinged tunes such as 'Bei Mir Bist du Schoen' as early as 1938, and Artie's own theme song 'Nightmare' owed a debt to an unspoken klezmer background. 'Dr. Livingstone' merges a bluesy jungle floor show impression with that klezmer style, to brilliant witty effect, paying homage to two very important cultural strands in jazz clarinet history.

The complete Gramcery 5 sessions from 1940-1954 are now available on a five disc set from Jasmine records. Be advised that the RCA single disc marketed as the "Complete Sessions" (licked to in this post) is not at all complete, but only the recordings from the early 1940s. This CD was released in the late 1980s, before Shaw himself released the four discs comprising his last sessions, and RCA has never bothered to change the innacuracy on the cover!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Ten Essential Jazz Clarinet Recordings (9)

9. Stan Hasselgård  California Sessions

Åke "Stan" Hasselgård, who on November 23, 1948 died tragically in a car crash at age 26, is one of the most brilliant and neglected of jazz clarinetists. Befriended by his hero, Benny Goodman (perhaps the only clarinetist who was invited by Benny to share the bandstand in his Sextet), Hasselgård's relaxed sound, natural swing, and remarkable bop ear seemed to have marked him for jazz greatness.

Despite his Swedish upbringing and musical education, Hasselgård's sound seems to have emerged straight from the American jazz scene. Later clarinet boppers were often drawn from conservatory trained ranks, and their sounds lack the full, relaxed quality of the swing masters. This is part of what makes Hasselgård so enjoyable to listen to: no conservatory stuffiness, no mere pattern patter. Because of this, his few recordings are truly essential.

The Hasselgård Sextet seems to have grown conceptually out of the Goodman Sextet. It's delightful to hear Goodman veteran Red Norvo, who was directly responsible for bringing together Benny and Teddy Wilson, present on Hasselgård's recordings too. But the Swede was able to take Benny's concept farther into modern jazz territory, and seems a harbinger to Artie Shaw's last Gramercy 5 of 1954. Indeed, these recordings sound as though they might have served as an influence upon Shaw's greatest work.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Ten Essential Jazz Clarinet Recordings (8)

8. Irving Fazola * "Faz" * 1936-45

Faz would make this list for his sound alone, but the compilation album above goes beyond a showcase of Irving Fazola's legendary tone, presenting a range of styles that are important in the history of jazz clarinet--from more traditional New Orleans jazz, to swing era arrangements, to some of the earliest blendings of solo clarinet with "easy listening" or "commercial" music.

Featured on the disc are a few important bands that Faz contributed to: Ben Pollack's Orchestra (which served as the cradle to so many important band leaders of the Swing Era), the all-but-forgotten Bob Crosby orchestra, Glenn Miller's Orchestra, and a generous number of sides Faz recorded as a leader himself.

In nearly every interview he ever gave, and for a substantial portion of his autobiography, Pete Fountain reiterated that Faz was his model for sound. Big, fat, warm, and remarkable for it's perfect balance, his sound is a worthy template to build a style on.

I had never heard the name Fazola before I met Pete Fountain in the summer of 1990. It dawns on me now, over twenty years later, that Pete might have kept the name alive single handedly over the course of several decades. This is an important lesson for the rest of us: what we say, and whose names and recordings we pass on can have a very important effect for those who come after us. Even if the current critical community is aloof to this beautiful history of jazz clarinet, we can keep it alive as Pete did--mentioning those who have meant so much to us to anyone who will listen. This keeps a tradition alive.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Ten Essential Jazz Clarinet Recordings (7)

7. Billie Holiday * The Lady Sings * (1935-1949)

So often as a jazz clarinetist, I've longed to own a time machine, for a very specific purpose: I wish I could hear live the sounds of all my old heroes, and really know how to compare them with my own playing. Was Benny really that commanding? Was Irving Fazola's sound really that fat? Or are these effects of the microphone and my imagination.

This set of discs is probably the closest thing to that time machine, especially the first two. Most of the recording dates represented were arranged by John Hammond, that pioneer of racial equality in music, who contracted the players for the backing band to one of our country's greatest vocalists.

The personnel was different on each date, and contained a who's who of jazz musicians from the '30s--especially the featured clarinetists:

Benny Goodman
Artie Shaw
Irving Fazola
Buster Bailey
Edgar Sampson
Edmond Hall
Harry Carney
Jimmy Hamilton
and others.

Because these tunes were probably recorded under less then perfect conditions--probably one mic for the singer and band--we actually get to hear each clarinetists in the background, some distance from the mic. Hence we have the opportunity to hear something like their "real" projection, with the added benefit that we get to compare it to another great from the next track!

Of course Billie's singing is incredible too--an invaluable resource to any musician-- and the rest of the sidemen range from Teddy Wilson to Claude Thornhill, Harry James, Buck Clayton, Jo Jones--it's a feast for the swing fan.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Pete Fountain for DownBeat Hall of Fame

Many readers of The Jazz Clarinet will probably receive their issue of DownBeat this week, as I did a couple of days ago. It's loaded with interesting stuff this month, including the 60th annual critics poll. Page 38 features a list of those in the DownBeat Hall of Fame.

Clarinetists are well represented, so we have no reason to complain. According to my quick scan, they are the following, in the order they were inducted:

Benny Goodman (1957)
Sidney Bechet (1968)
Pee Wee Russell (1969)
Woody Herman (1976)
Johnny Dodds (1987)
Artie Shaw (1996)

Since the institution of the DB HoF, at least one clarinetist has been inducted every decade--until recently! That means we have to get mobilized, people. There are many clarinetists who deserve to be on this list, including Edmond Hall, Irving Fazola, Omer Simeon, and others. But for me the most glaring omission is Pete Fountain, who was the face of jazz clarinet to the public at large for several decades.

The sad fact is that many jazz fans, especially those born (like myself) after 1970, have never had the opportunity to hear a vast amount of the the great jazz Pete produced from 1959 through the '60s. Albums like The Blues, Live at the Bateau Lounge, Pete's Place, New Orleans after Midnight, and Pete Fountain Day have plenty of great jazz in them. In fact, they tend to highlight what few realize was the genius of Pete Fountain--an ability to take New Orleans jazz and blend it with other styles, moving it forward while inviting others in. Moreover, he helped revitalize the New Orleans jazz scene at a time when it was in danger of disappearing.

Too often great players receive their recognition after their deaths. Pete Fountain is still with us, though he is retired from playing. We have an opportunity.

I'm not sure how to get Pete "on the ballot" so to speak, but let's get this idea circulating, so that critics and fans alike will remember the contribution of one of jazz history's greatest showmen, and one of jazz clarinet's greatest innovators and virtuosos.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Ten Essential Jazz Clarinet Recordings (6)

6. Bill Smith * Near-Myth * The Dave Brubeck Quartet * 1961

[Review temporarily removed, to be updated as part of more comprehensive look at the three Smith/Brubeck collaborations from 1959-61]