Friday, March 1, 2019

The NRR Project #57: 'Wild Cat Blues' - the debut of Sidney Bechet (1923)

“Wild Cat Blues”
Composed by Clarence Williams and Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller
Recorded: July 30, 1923
Performers: Clarence Williams’ Blue Five
Sidney Bechet, soprano sax
Clarence Williams, piano
Thomas Morrison, cornet
John Mayfield, trombonist (possible)
Buddy Christian, banjo (possible)

This recording contains a few firsts — it’s Thomas 'Fats' Waller’s first recorded composition, and it marks the initial appearance on record of the masterful soprano saxophonist, Sidney Bechet.

The absolute best source of information on the recording is found here, in the essay Thomas L. Morgan wrote on the piece for the National Recording Registry. In it, he makes a firm case for the importance of pianist, composer, music publisher, and talent manager Clarence Williams in the history of jazz. Williams did it all, and he understood how to make and market great music. (His grandson, the prominent actor, is his namesake, Clarence Williams III.)

The tune is credited to both Waller and Williams; however, it was standard industry practice for the music publisher to get a co-credit, for the sake of revenue distribution. Williams is also credited with writing or co-writing other classics such as “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” “Royal Garden Blues,” and “Shout, Sister, Shout.” He understood and knew how to work the connections between live performance, recordings, and sheet music to maximize profits.

Waller had just made his first recordings the year before. A preacher’s son, he was a wunderkind on the organ, quitting school at 15 to play accompaniment in movie houses. Soon he would be one of the most popular and prolific performers and songwriters in 20th century music.

At the time of the recording, all the principals involved were young — Williams was 25, Waller was only 19. Soloist Sidney Bechet was a relatively old 26. Like Williams, Bechet had migrated north from New Orleans to where the work was, after years of training playing live.

The approach here is based on the New Orleans style — simultaneous improvisations and embroideries done as an ensemble. Here, Bechet breaks out for good from that template. Jazz solos were largely ornamental or gimmicky up to this point. Bechet maintains the internal logic of the composition, but he puts his own cocky, whimsical “voice” into the mix. The idea that a jazz solo could express an individual is revolutionary. Before, jazzmen were talented if replaceable musicians; after, they were distinctive artists.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Ma Rainey sings ‘See See Rider Blues.’

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