A friend once confided in me that she led a jazzless life, and that she was beginning to wonder if she simply had no soul. Or maybe I was the one who told her that she led a jazzless life, it’s been known. Either way, the remedial compilation CDs I tried to put together presented all the problems of punk rock mixtapes of yore: great records omitted because of poor sound, personal favourites that perhaps rightly hadn’t become popular favourites, the pain of having to omit the Desperate Bicycles, or in this case, Gorman’s Novelty Syncopators. Only the names had changed!
To her, then, in the absence of a CD, I dedicate these ten New Orleans jazz classics. This can’t provide any kind of overview of jazz antiquity, simply a handful of snapshots, and hopefully half an hour of enjoyable music. I’m sorry if anybody’s favourites aren’t here – I had to leave some of mine out too – but I’m sure they’ll be on the next one. Perhaps alongside Gorman’s Novelty Syncopators…
1. Original Tuxedo Rag – The Original Tuxedo Jazz Band (23.01.1925)
Not as much New Orleans jazz as you might think was actually recorded in New Orleans. Recording activity in the early part of the last century was centred in New York and Chicago, so we owe some of our understanding of early provincial music to the numerous field trips conducted by record companies and ethnomusicologists, capturing so much vernacular music with portable recording equipment. This was one of the relatively few early jazz records made in its supposed birthplace, a great piece of New Orleans ensemble work with all nine of the band members skipping around the theme with an enthralling clatter. The Tuxedo Band itself was formed by Oscar “Papa” Celestin in 1910, to perform at the Tuxedo Dance Hall in New Orleans. By the time it recorded there had been several line up changes, so purists can enjoy quibbling about this not being the Original Original Tuxedo Band!
2. Wild Cat Blues – Clarence Williams Blue Five featuring Sidney Bechet (30.06.1923)
“On me your voice comes down as they say love should, like an enormous yes,” enthused Philip Larkin about Sidney Bechet. Bechet was probably the first great soloist in jazz, a claim only really contested by Louis Armstrong. His place in the history of the music is clear, but finding an ideal representation of his earlier work has never been easy. Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton recorded fabulous bodies of innovative work over short periods, which lent themselves quite nicely to definitive compilation come the age of the LP: think of the Buzzcocks’ “Singles Going Steady” album. For every early Bechet classic, however, there were pleasant if less trailblazing records that were illuminated largely by his own sparkling contributions. A confident character, he started on clarinet but moved to soprano sax, charmed by its blend of fluidity and ensemble dominance – do we even notice the other horns on this remarkable extended solo? We don’t know how much of this was improvised, but we can clearly see the luminous invention of a man seizing his moment, at a time when Armstrong’s developing artistry was rather hidden in a larger ensemble (see Dippermouth Blues, below). Incidentally, while this disc is clearly Bechet’s, it was credited to Clarence William’s Blue Five, a shifting aggregation led by Williams himself – an average composer, an anonymous musician, and a ruthlessly canny publisher. A prototype Simon Cowell, in fact!
3. Potato Head Blues – Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven (10.05.1927)
One of the very greatest of all jazz recordings and one that could almost act as a jazz lesson in itself. Staying on the beat for the first couple of notes of the simple theme, Louis states the rest of it swinging around the off beats, laced by Johnny Dodds’ clarinet embellishments. A brief trumpet break prompts a fine solo from Dodds, which might have provided the focal point of any other record, but Armstrong, not to be outdone, replies with a majestic stop-time solo which breathtakingly brings together all the virtues we’d expect from his playing at this point. Bravado, virtuosity, rhythmic invention and perfect judgement, largely unaccompanied and almost heart-stoppingly exciting, until the rest of the band join in for one last euphoric chorus. Wonderful jazz which to this day sounds freshly minted.
4. The Pearls – Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers (10.06.1927)
And just a month later came one of the other very greatest of all jazz recordings! Had he been a rock star, Jelly’s picaresque life and boastful character would provide a reliable fall-back to needy pop and rock magazines – even this composition was inspired by a sporting house madam! His claims to have invented jazz didn’t make him too popular with his peers, however, although they carried some grains of truth: nobody could doubt Morton’s position as the music’s first great composer and arranger, and some years before any jazz records were made, he had registered a number of compositions which showed movement beyond ragtime and blues. His thorough working-out of these pieces in the intervening years led to his Chicago recordings with the Red Hot Peppers in 1926/27 being the absolute pinnacle of his achievements. “The Pearls,” one of these early compositions, retains a stately ragtime influence but finds the whole band playing past itself in a masterful arrangement glowing with instrumental coloration and tightly-knit horn voicings. More than any other jazz musician of the day, Jelly viewed the three-minute recording window as an opportunity rather than a limitation, and his classic sides are self-contained masterpieces of exquisite detail, like little symphonic haikus. The first great record producer as well?
5. Clarinet Wobble – Johnny Dodds’ Bootblacks (21.04.1927)
Johnny Dodds was a self-taught New Orleans clarinet man, possessed of a fluent, blues-inflected “down home” style which added much to a remarkable number of New Orleans classics. Many of the most renowned sides by King Oliver’s Jazz Band, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens and Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers (when Omer Simeon was unavailable) all gained from his presence, and recordings made by his own outfits – the Bootblacks, the Washboard Band, the Black Bottom Stompers – are much cherished by aficionados. Johnny was a careful and abstinent individual who died tragically young, some years before his notoriously profligate younger brother, drummer “Baby” Dodds, whose imprimatur graces just as many of the outstanding recordings of the age. This relaxed disc finds Johnny sounding quite at home across the range of his instrument, and as well as his touching playing it’s worth listening out for Bud Scott’s strangely wooden guitar solo. Listen closely and you can see his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth!
6. Beau Koo Jack – The Omer Simeon Trio (21.08.1929)
Omer Simeon was Jelly Roll Morton’s favourite clarinet player, both for his understanding of Morton’s often complex three-minute forms, and for his ability to improvise within sketches of musical ideas (see “Doctor Jazz,” below). This trio date finds Simeon and Earl Hines having a great time, egging each other on, with the unadorned line-up giving a very clear idea of what both of them were up to. It’s worth comparing the well-schooled style of the middle-class Creole Simeon, every note precisely formed however fleet their execution, with the soulful, elided manner of his working-class peer Johnny Dodds.
7. Doctor Jazz – Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers 16.12.1926)
The only recorded example of Jelly’s singing (apart from a fascinating collection of historical recordings made in his twilight for the Library of Congress), is on this recording of a song written by the aforementioned King Oliver. While not drawn from the same well of creativity as Morton’s own compositions, it’s flavoured by the distinctive clarinet work of Omer Simeon (how long are those notes?) and a joyous, shirt-tail momentum that gives the impression of a happily crowded charabanc bouncing along the seaside.
8. Dipper Mouth Blues – King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (06.04.1923)
One of the first great sequences of jazz records, and the first recorded by an all-black band, was laid down by Joe “King” Oliver’s band in 1923. They remain an important document of jazz as it moved away from ragtime towards the solo-based model that the band’s second cornet player, Louis Armstrong, would develop so thrillingly in subsequent years. The audio murk might call for a little patience and even creativity from modern ears, but bear in mind that it was recorded by a band which had to play into an acoustic horn while hoping that no trains would pass the studio on the track that ran outside! Here we have one of the earliest recorded examples of Louis Armstrong’s mastery, sharing cornet duties with Oliver in a band that also included the ubiquitous Johnny Dodds and Louis’ future wife, Lil Hardin, on piano. Anybody remotely acquainted with British trad jazz could be forgiven for thinking that the solos on this record formed the foundation of the whole movement!
9. Heebie Jeebies – Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five (26.02.1926)
This early disc by the Hot Five is widely held to have popularised scat singing, although there were earlier jazz records which visited similar ground with less herald, and there had been blues and ragtime novelties prior to the jazz age which had made a feature of any amount of demented squawking. History loves a legend, though, and here the story goes that Louis dropped his lyric sheet in mid-flight and had to improvise for the rest of the take. Cute, but we might want to bear in mind that the lyrics already bordered on gobbledegook: “Ive got the heebies, I mean the jeebies, talking about the dance the heebie jeebies…” Lyric sheet or no, scat was just a couple of syllables away!
10. Livery Stable Blues – The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (26.02.1917)
And where better to end than at the very beginning, with the very first jazz record ever issued? Some might find it a little quaint today (imitating farm animals was a short-lived novelty), but it’s impossible to deny the wildly exuberant energy that blazes a trail through the debris of the ancient acoustic recording. The rights and wrongs of a white band getting in there first have been much discussed over the decades, and will make an appearance in these pages soon enough, but for now we should be thankful for the recordings, and their thrilling, bone-shaking momentum.