The American Masters episode on Cab Calloway is about as fantastic and inspiring as the man’s music and dance moves. Watch it here.
As a gigantic fan of Louis Armstrong’s early small group recordings, I heartily recommend the blog The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong. Here’s a couple of recommendations on posts to start with.
This wasn’t the first time Louis snuck away to Vocalion. On May 28, 1926, he recorded two sessions for the label, one with Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra and one with the Hot Five, renamed “Lil’s Hot Shots.” On those recordings, he didn’t hide who he was in the least; he even took a vocal on “Georgia Bo-Bo”! But as the famous story goes, Louis was called into OKeh’s offices and played those recordings. When asked who was on the trumpet, Armstrong supposedly replied, “I don’t know….but I won’t do it again!”
The combination of the Mills’s hornlike voices and the mellowness of Armstrong’s tenor during this period proved quite natural and the combination would be repeated three more times in the Decca studios, as well as on numerous radio broadcasts. What’s odd about their first pairing was the choice of material: “Carry Me Back To Old Virginny” and “Darling Nelly Gray,” two songs that harkened back to the days of slavery. “Virginny” was written in 1878 by James A. Bland, a black man, and contained lines such as “There’s where this old darkie’s heart does long to go” and “There’s where I labored so hard for dear ol’ massa.” I know…yikes. The folk music period was just getting off the ground and this were clearly thought of as a folk song but having two of the most popular black acts in America cover it was pretty risky.
In the early days of the 20th century, “spasm band” referred to a group of street performers who played in a hot style on whatever instruments they could wrangle. <em>The Jazz Revolution: Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz</em> quotes New Orleans musician Danny Barker as saying that spasm bands
played all sorts of gadgets that produced sounds: musical saws, washboards, spoons, bells, pipes, sandpaper, xylophones, sets of bottles (each with a different amount of water), harmonicas, jews harps, one string fiddles, guitars, small bass fiddles, tub basses, kazoos, ram horns, steer horns, bugles, tin flutes, trombones, and many others… These performers and musicians were welcomed by the patrons in the joint, although the first time it was mainly out of curiosity.
The Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band (pictured above) may have been the first. In the late 1890s, Emile “Stalebread” Lacoume was a newsboy who attracted customers by playing harmonica and eventually by leading a band of neighborhood kids. Cheese box banjo, soap box guitar, a barrel bass strung with a clothing line, and a primitive contraption kit with random home-assembled percussion. These items sound more like the instrumentation of a jug band than the first jazz band, but the Razzy Dazzy kids are sometimes credited as the originators of jazzed up tunes. In one unlikely story adults stole the band’s name, and when the kids protested, the adults renamed themselves the “Razy Dazy Jazzy Band.” Nobody’s found a definitive origin for the word jazz, but this story is sometimes used to suggest a kinship with spasm.
Over the years, many have tried to indentify the one single element that makes jazz jazz. Everyone agrees that jazz overlaps with other American musical traditions, but many suspect that has some secret ingredient, the presence or absence of which makes a thing definitively jazz or not. Jelly Roll Morten thought it was latin rhythm. The revivalists of the 1940s thought it was group improvisation. When west coast jazz appeared, some said it’d lost the claim to jazz by losing touch with the blues, but at the same time others criticized artists like Cannonball Adderley for relying too strongly on blues licks. If I had to pick just one element, I’d be tempted to point to the jazz musician’s sense of humor and a particular adventurous approach the music. The spasm bands had this. So might have early black brass bands and dance bands in New Orleans who played the standards repertoire of the time with individual flare and the rhythmic shifts that would eventually be named swing.
Humor has a constroversial place in jazz history. Early jazz was considered novelty music by record companies, music publishers and white audiences. Had they not inspired musicians like Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer, The Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Livery Stable Blues” might have lived forever on the shelf next to novelty “hillbilly” records of the time.
Some historians view the humor of early jazz as an impediment to its destiny as a supreme form of self-expression. I don’t think that view can be supported when you listen to the joy and life present in the following recordings.
I wonder whether the comb and junk percussion on that Red McKenzie’s Mound City Blue Blowers clip were inspired by stories of spasm bands past or if the musicians learned to express themselves on hand-crafted instruments all on their own.
As corny as some early jazz humor sounds now, it’s worth remembering that this was the style at the time. It wasn’t old-fashioned yet: it was new, daring. Many like to imagine a direct, unbranching line between early jazz, the more harmonically adventurous big bands, and bebop, but not every musician followed that trajectory. Clifford Hayes, recording in the late 20s, found a lot of use for those old spasm instruments in his various jug bands – which often sounded as much like King Oliver as other jug bands of his day.
I love Billie Holiday’s bleaker songs and Duke Ellington’s innovative suites, but jazz is large enough to accommodate more without losing it’s integrity.
September 1914. Memphis. William Christopher Handy – better known as W. C. Handy – sat down behind a piano, determined to write a new song, but he found himself distracted by what he called “a seed of bitterness” weighing heavily on his mind.
His 1912 composition “The Memphis Blues” was his first runaway hit. By September 1914, it was being performed by bands up and down the Mississippi and even on the radio. The Castles – a pair of famous dance instructors – had used the song to introduce the world to the foxtrot – itself another runaway hit. Yet for all the song’s success, Handy had received no more than $50 in compensation. Such a story was not uncommon at the time, but Handy took the lesson personally. It left him shrewd, and eager to self-publish another hit to reap the profits he felt he deserved.
So on that September day, Handy went down to Beale Street, rented a room with a piano, closed the door on the outside world, and began to write. When he left the room, he had composed “Saint Louis Blues.”
When addressing the diversity of musical styles that were present in New Orleans at the birth of jazz, popular histories often described the genre as a uniquely American melting pot (or gumbo). What’s frequently lost in this origin story is that jazz didn’t remain anymore pure in the years that followed, and it wasn’t immediately accepted as the great American art form.
Musicians in the 1920s were frequently expected to perform songs from multiple genres. People shouting “Freebird” at inappropriate times and bands isn’t novel development. Audiences want to hear what they want to hear, and by gum, the band had better be able to play it or that audience is walking out. Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Deltadoes an excellent job at showing how even celebrated country blues musicians of the delta performed the Broadway and Vaudeville hits of the day. When we classify things into neat categories like country blues, ragtime, or swing, we tend to miss the overlap and communication that occurred across the boundaries we try to impose.
Take this video for example. Red McKenzie and his Mound City Blowers. The band’s members were all from large cities and were quite skilled musicians, and here they are performing “St Louis Blues,” Handy’s technically brilliant melding of ragtime, blues, and habenera. Yet how does one reconcile that with the choice of instrumentation, including a suitcase and comb? Or with the choice of blacking out the percussionist’s teeth and the intentionally comedic speed?
Jazz histories with a bent on proving that jazz is a true art form tend to write off such silliness as record company gimmicks or sacrifices that were necessary to get jazz heard, but I’m not so sure that’s the entire story. McKenzie spent his on-stage career with comb and kazoo in hand, and I find it difficult to believe his associates, like Condon and Lang, needed to suffer through such corniness when their own bands fared so well. Maybe it’s naiveté on my part, but I hear a certain joy in these performances. For all the talk of jazz as the art of spontaneity or invention, there’s certainly room to consider combs, kazoos, suitcases, and jugs as suitable tools for achieving it.