Tuesday, November 7, 2017

NRR Project 40: 'Crazy Blues' (1920)

‘Crazy Blues’
Composer: Perry Bradford
Performed by Mamie Smith and Her Jaz Hounds
Recorded: August 10, 1920

To begin with, the blues were never really just the blues. By the time Mamie Smith recorded “Crazy Blues” in 1920, becoming the first African-American to sing the blues on record, blues concepts and forms had already infiltrated American music. However, her recording sold more than a million copies, sparking a storm of interest and a host of followers, and codifying a genre of music.

Pioneers such as Ma Rainey, while on vaudeville tours at the turn of last century, heard early blues sung by non-professionals and started to pick up the vocabulary, pulse, and feeling of the music. However, when it came to black music, the mainstream taste of the time ran to what were termed “coon” songs – racist and derogatory comedy songs that emphasized stereotyped black behaviors, sung by “coon shouters” (oddly, these were mostly white women, in and out of “blackface” makeup).

Even African-American musical giant W.C. Handy, composer, bandleader, and “father of the blues,” infused elements of ragtime and proto-jazz into his pioneering compositions such as “Memphis Blues” in 1912. That tune was first sung on record by a Caucasian, Morton Harvey, two years later. It was a staid rendition, not “hot” nor deeply felt, delivered as a kind of novelty number. Soon, these pseudo-blues became the province of white female singers such as Nora Bayes and Marion Harris.

Pianist, singer, and composer Perry Bradford convinced Okeh Records’ A&R director Fred Hager to take a chance and record Mamie Smith. She had appeared in Bradford’s 1918 revue Made in Harlem, and she had a strong, clear contralto voice that transferred onto acetate well using the acoustic recording techniques of the day. Despite reported pushback from groups that didn’t like the idea of a black singer making records, Hager went ahead.

Revenue trumped racism. Copies of the record sold by the hundreds of thousands, not just to African-Americans customers but whites as well, rich as well as poor. Here was a genre of music, a sibling of newly-born jazz, which really connected with listeners and exploded into the big time. Soon singers such as Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Alberta Hunter were drawing audiences all across the country. Soon, despite the record industry’s attempt to ghettoize the music by classifying African-American recordings as “race records,” they were welcomed into everyone’s consciousness.

Smith’s accompanists were black, too – Ernest Elliott on clarinet, Leroy Parker on violin, Johnny Dunn on cornet, Walter “Dope” Andrews on trombone, and either Willie “The Lion” Smith or Bradford himself on piano – both men claimed the distinction in later years. “Crazy Blues” is not traditional, straight blues – Bradford artfully interpolated enough variation to make it unique. However, all the elements are there – the repeated phrases, the mournful elegance of the lyrics, and most importantly the undisguised feeling that distinguished the blues from the pallid offerings of the pop hits of the day such as “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” and “Whispering.”

The raucous interplay of the instrumentalists are in keeping with the organized chaos of early jazz orchestration, none of it laid out on paper but rather made up on the spot in what were known as “head” or “hum” arrangements. The strong rhythmic sense propels the song, particularly the step-down note sequences between chord changes (that familiar “wah-wah-wah” sound). Dope Andrews’ performance on trombone is a distinctive and delightful feature, using the “tailgate” or “smear” slide technique that allowed the trombonist to flow from one note to the next with ripe abandon.

Smith sings full-out, bending the notes or sidling up to them rather than landing on them with the precision of a conventional vocalist. It’s an urgent, raw sound, one that demands attention. Even though the lyrics are despairing (“I can’t sleep at night/I can’t eat a bite”), there’s something positive and assertive in her delivery that affirms a key part of the blues – the idea that the singer is working through their emotions, purging themselves of the hopelessness that inspired the song in the first place, using the music to come out on top. No wonder people were knocked out by it.

Interestingly, the last verse of “Crazy Blues” is often altered or omitted by singers and scholars. It’s an egregious example of minority-on-minority racism. “I’m gonna do like a Chinaman, go and get some hop/Get myself a gun, and shoot myself a cop,” Smith sings.

Prejudice against Asian immigrants, and Asian-Americans, was just as rife as anti-black sentiment at the time. Anti-“Chinese” riots had been recorded since the 1870s, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was on the books. The stereotype of Chinese as pidgin-English-speaking opium addicts who constituted a “Yellow Peril” that consciously sought to destroy Western civilization was entrenched in the culture. Bradford cast his despairing singer into an imagined situation where they could end their misery by bringing on death through killing a police officer, a disturbing projection of a transgressive desire.

Later performers would change the words; on Leon Redbone’s 1977 album Double Time, he artfully slurs and mumbles the offending passage. The lyrics in question are a blemish on an otherwise transformative, landmark composition.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Al Jolson sings Swanee.

Monday, October 23, 2017

NRR Project 39: 'Tiger Rag'

‘Tiger Rag’
Composition origin unknown
Performed by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band
Recorded: March 25, 1918
Define jazz. Go ahead, give it a shot. Its very slipperiness, its looseness, its inclusiveness, its constant evolution and convolution, is perhaps a definition in itself. Robert Christgau termed it “inventing meaning while letting loose,” and that’s close enough for me.

The birth of recorded jazz is here with this squawky recording of five white guys playing music created by African- and Latin-Americans, an appropriation familiar to students of this country’s cultural history. To the uninitiated, it sounds like a riot in a music store – a raucous and random compendium of blatts and squawks, trills and slides, polyphonic discoordination. The mainstream initially characterized it as a fleeting novelty, nothing more.

Although the Original Dixieland Jass (later, Jazz) Band copyrighted the tune, its origins are much older. “Tiger Rag” had long been considered a “standard” by the early jazz bands in New Orleans, where it was born without historical documentation. It went by various names – “Weary Weasel,” “Number Two Blues,” “Play Jack Carey” (after the New Orleans trombonist who made his instrument growl), and others. It’s a mashup – various cels of repeated phrases that serve as templates, beds for improvisations, call and response, the fragmentation and juggling of notes among the players. (The Band originally recorded the piece on August 17, 1917, but they did so for Vocalion using a strange and soon to be outmoded vertical-cut recording process, instead of the familiar lateral, outside-in tracking that became standard.)

But there’s a through-line underneath, a strong, syncopated, swinging motor that drives an aggressive assertion of unity through diversity, a loose confederation of soloists sharing time and tempo. Jazz burst forth in a tepid time musically, drugged with delicacy, sentiment, and the insipid imitation of European song models. The only “stirring” music was written for marching bands. The bold, insistent assertion of “Tiger Rag” made it a hit.

The bearers of these glad tidings were musicians from New Orleans, brought up first to Chicago and then New York to capitalize on the sudden demand for hot music to dance to in tony nightclubs. When Cornetist Nick LaRocca, clarinetist Larry Shields, trombonist Eddie Edwards, pianist Henry Ragas, and drummer Tony Sbarbaro began their gig at Reisenweber’s CafĂ© in Manhattan in early 1917, they sparked a craze and started a musical revolution. Soon trainloads of Crescent City musicians were headed north to make some money and spread the new musical gospel.

It helped immensely that jazz was a vernacular music, rather than an art music that required years of training and a submission to an academic tradition and repertoire, dragged down into dullness through tradition and politesse. It was rough, crude, participatory, and eminently replicable, something you picked up “by ear” through participation and kept in unwritten “head arrangements,” a trial-and-error ethos that’s stuck with it to this day and kept it vital. With jazz there was freedom and a chance for the individual voice to soar – even if it had to roar above the other creatures in its pandemonious musical zoo.

“Tiger Rag,” covered countless times in countless ways since its debut recording, became one of the foundations of jazz development, along with other gems like “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Indiana,” “Didn’t He Ramble,” “Careless Love,” “St. Louis Blues,” “Keep A-Knockin’,” and other tunes that would influence everything that came after them.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Mamie Smith sings Crazy Blues.

Monday, September 11, 2017

NRR Project 38: 'After You've Gone'

‘After You’ve Gone’
Music: Turner Layton
Lyrics: Henry Creamer
Sung by Marion Harris
Recorded: October 18, 1918

“After You’ve Gone” represents a turning point. Up until it became a hit, “black” and “white” musics stayed in their respective corners. Bluesy music wasn’t even thought to be fit for recording. When it finally was, it was classified as fit only for “race records,” not for right-thinking Caucasians, who were still awash in sentimental ballads and waltz tunes. After it hit, the mainstream move away from the stilted, pallid songs of the day began in earnest, sparking the collective creation of the Great American Songbook.

The tune was composed by African-American vaudeville partners Layton and Creamer, who supplied many shows and revues around Manhattan with material – the Ziegfield Follies, for one. Though civil rights were still abysmal, finally black artists were finding their work valued. It gave them a toehold in the entertainment world that would lead to other opportunities.

The song is definitely built on a blues lament – it’s a classic you’ll-be-sorry-for-leaving-me song. The cadences are long and loping, with a series of descending chords that make the singer feel as though they’ve stepping down into the phrases. Meanwhile, the poignant runs up and down to the “gone” notes actually convey woefulness. Songwriting is starting not to tell but to show, to embody strong and intense emotion in the music itself, in compact unis, all tied together to reinforce an overarching theme. The architecture of pop is under invention.

The lyrics are direct and conversational, and reflect the growing idea in American songwriting that a song is personal, sung to an imaginary individual, instead of just belted out to the crowd. The song tells a story, and conveys a perspective – a two-minute miracle. This, along with a melody that welcomes harmony and variation, resulted in it being one of the most recorded standards ever.

The delivery of Marion Harris in this recording is stiff and polite. It would take the 1927 recordings made by Last of the Red Hot Mamas, Sophie Tucker (covered earlier her in the series) and Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith to really give the material the swing and heft it deserves. Since then, it’s been recorded countless times, in all kinds of tempi and arrangements. It’s indestructible.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Tiger Rag.