Friday, February 09, 2007

The Kings of Jass

Paul Whiteman spinning as I write this, a collection called The Bix Beiderbecke Legend, on French RCA. These are 1928 sessions, possibly unmarketable were it not for Beiderbecke's presence. The overall effect is refined flour pancakes coated with margarine with three times the optimum syrup, except that certain spare and inventive solos briefly poke through the sucrose. Interesting to note the lead lines that Whiteman often gave to Beiderbecke and how much muscle he brings to otherwise unbelievable fluffy music. I am by no means an expert on '20s and early '30s jazz, and I know there are those listeners out there who are obssessive about these early recordings. But in comparison to Armstrong's Hot 5's and 7's, which I have heard, or Duke's efforts from roughly the same period, this is remarkably soft and genteel music. Whiteman's dense yet unswinging and predictable charts get some small part of "jazz," and the rest is treacle. The two feel is unrelenting, underpinned by the constant 4. There's an offbeat, but the main thrust of the rhythmic motif is on 1 and 3. The dotted 8th note choppiness is unrelenting and overall the phrasing is extremely tidy. The vocal numbers are nearly unlistenable. The strings goop around, providing a tiny bit of fairly tidy melisma. I wonder...if I had decided to play this music 80 years ago would I have also begun to drink myself to death?

But this music must have been extraordinarily easy to dance to. The expropriation of just enough of the more blatant facets of a "jazz" style is balanced quite skillfully with absolutely explicit and unsubtle THUMP thump THUMP thump. The proceedings are fairly well-recorded, and I assume that, relatively speaking, there was money for Whiteman and his orchestras. Is this the first example of white jazz? And did the guy really have to be named Whiteman? The music gods have a sense of humor, for sure.

There a few tracks of Beiderbecke with Hoagy Carmichael and a few of Beiderbecke's own 1930 band with the Dorseys, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and Peewee Russell. The Hoagy Carmichael instantly has a different feel from Whiteman. It's funkier, it hops more. But the version of "Rockin' Chair" is sullied by the minstrelsy mugging of the vocals. "Barnacle Bill the Sailor" is a manic and extremely discomfiting "novelty number." Beiderbecke's own band provides a happy go lucky version of one of those searingly ironic tunes, "Deep Down South," a paean to...well, the Deep South. In general, Beiderbecke's own 1930 ensemble recordings feel closer to Whiteman than to Carmichael's syncopation. Except for more of a two-beat feel (one TWO one TWO) and more space for some inventive solos.

When I read Reading Jazz, the anthology edited by Robert Gottleib, it struck me how much romanticization and hero-worship young Beiderbecke received from a generation of "jazz" musicians from roughly 1940 to 1960 or so. The racism inherent in many comments about Beiderbecke is glaring. One famous musician said, "Beiderbecke helped to make jazz civilized." Is this not a deflected way of saying he helped to make it whiter? I'll stand by the queasy feeling I get of "making jazz safe for The Man," and the veiled "great white hope" whistfulness behind Bix worship, despite, of course, not being able to substantiate it.

Bix hagiography also reminds me too much of Dave Douglas's recent odd comments regarding the "crazy experimental freedom" of the '60s and '70s and how improvising musicians now are "harnessing" all that. It is important for creative musicians to remember that only the most blatant ploys (or natural tendencies) toward instant digestibility result in significantly greater sales figures. "Harnessed" CEF is still CEF, and has a very high LD 50. The handful of "jazz" musicians who make any real money (and they are not "jazz" musicians, really, most often) present few if any challenges to the listening public. Even a smidgeon of "crazy experimental freedom," just the slightest hint of it, and one's career is suddenly below the radar. I often innocently pick tracks for my radio show that I am convinced are non-threatening and "inside," perfectly mainstream, and have gotten feedback that "it's just too weird for me, too noisy/strange/hyper/dissonant." The general American listening public has all the sense of adventure of Immanuel Kant.

Having waded through the enjoyably odd Bix sides, it's now Charlie Parker/Fats Navarro/Curley Russell/Bud Powell/Art Blakey, execrable recordings captured live at Birdland, June 30, 1950. Twenty years after Goldkette, Whiteman, Carmichael, Bix. Dirge-like 'Round Midnight. Crazy.


Emery Snyder said...

Yes, the Whiteman sides are both way too poppy and way danceable (especially "Sugar"). And you're not even hearing the more pretentious side of Whiteman, just ones with Bix solos. But those guys apparently liked the more classical stuff, the same way Charlie Parker really like the idea of playing with strings. Lots of interesting work to do there on self-perception (cf. the jazz phrase "he can play legit").

Other things to work into that whole topic: (a) Beiderbecke wrote Debussy-influenced piano pieces (good, actually), but could not read music reliably for a long time. (b) As Whitney Balliett pointed out, Bill Challis's arrangements do help to add to the drama of Bix's solos. (c) On posterity: Bix sounds "white", yes, but also "smooth". He was an influence on some important people of the next generation. I remember Bennie Carter asking us, when I was in a college jazz band, whether we still listened to Bix and Frank Trumbauer, and saying how important they were. I think Tram was an influence on Lester Young, too.

peter breslin said...

Emery! The source of all of these riches. Thanks for leaving a comment on my fledgling blog.

I just jaw-dropped my way through the Fletcher Henderson sides, the 4 album set called "A Study in Frustration." Did you buy that from the Bethlehem Public Library, by the way?

Anyhow, his mid-period was amazing. I like the swing-oriented later stuff and his initial forays as well, but the sides with Armstrong and some of the other stuff: absolutely stunning. Highly instructive to A/B these performances with Whiteman. I'll be posting on the Henderson soon.

gotta run, please comment often...