Joe’s History of Jazz
Lesson 3B – The Swing Era – Part 2

In the previous entry, I should have made reference to the 1927 film The Jazz Singer. This picture is notable for a number of reasons. Primarily, it was the first full-length movie with synchronized sound and images, and is generally called the first ‘talkie’. From what I gather, the plot goes something like this: son of a cantor doesn’t want to follow in dad’s footsteps, he wants to sing jazz. Son wants one thing; dad wants another. Big disagreement follows, but with some kind of reconciliation at the end. Jolson, himself a nice Jewish boy from Lithuania (who grew up in DC, as did much of my family) performed in blackface both in his own act and in the movie. The thing is, Jolson didn’t actually sing (much) jazz. Coming out of the early 20th century vaudeville scene, he used his strong tenor mostly in the service of sentimental ballads. Even his version of Alexander’s Ragtime Band seems to have the jazz feeling drained from it.

(Side note A: The release of The Jazz Singer is the crux of the action in Singin’ In The Rain. Gene Kelly’s character is working on a silent film that takes place in pre-revolution France (if I recall correctly) and the studio says, because of The Jazz Singer’s success, Kelly’s new film has to be a talkie too. His co-star however, has a lousy Brooklyn accent she can’t overcome.)

(Side note B: The 1980 remake starring Neil Diamond also features little music that could be called jazz. Diamond, another nice Jewish boy, sings pop and rock in his main career and didn’t stretch it out for the movie either. That said, I skip tracked the soundtrack while I was writing this, and it’s really quite good stuff.)

Jolson performed in several other movies, including The Singing Kid with Cab Calloway in which he and Calloway sang a parody of the Jolson style called I Love To Singa. Calloway started performing in the 20s, but hit it big in the 30s at (among other places) the Cotton Club, where his band stood in for a touring Duke Ellington. He recorded throughout the 30s (and beyond), but his first hit was 1931’s Minnie the Moocher, which he was still performing in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers. I’ve also included a big band recording of his track Jumpin’ Jive which served as the title track for new wave singer Joe Jackson’s exploration of jump and swing music in 1981. (That’s not entirely fair – Jackson’s early albums are distinctly new wave, but from 1982’s Night and Day onward, he refused pigeonholing.)

Meanwhile, across the pond, jazz was going in a different direction in Paris where guitarist Jean “Django” Reinhardt formed Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934 with violinist Stephane Grapelli. A lot has been written about Django’s style which was influenced by having lost two fingers on his left hand as a result of a fire that burned much of his body. He had to re-teach himself how to play and created fingerings that used two fingers instead of the four that most guitarists use. The Quintette, interestingly, was originally made up of string players who would use their instruments to add percussion. Horns and piano are present on many recordings, however.

You can get a feeling listening to Django’s take on WC Handy’s St. Louis Blues (performed by Louis Armstrong back in lesson 1) of how jazz evolves. Parts of it feel like a tango, and very little of it feels like the blues anymore.

According to Wikipedia, the Quintette performed and recorded with a number of American musicians who visited Paris in the 30s including Coleman Hawkins and a “jam session and radio performance” with Louis Armstrong. A quick web search for a surviving recording of this session has yielded no results.

Slim Gaillard, another interesting cat who got his musical start in the 30s, first recorded as half of the duo Slim and Slam with bassist Slam Stewart. Their first hit was Flat Foot Floogie, which was covered by several others including Benny Goodman. Gaillard continued to perform well into 1980s (including an appearance in the 1986 film Absolute Beginners). Gaillard is notable primarily for his humour and for singing in several different languages, including Yiddish and Vout, a language of his own invention for which he wrote a dictionary. I’ve also included Ferdinand the Bull, which seems to have been inspired by the book we all know and love. Pay particular attention to how Slam’s bowed bass solo sounds almost like a Dixieland trombone solo.

Stewart would go on to work with notables including pianists Art Tatum and Erroll Garner, Benny Goodman, and Fats Waller. We’ll hear more from these combos in the next entry.

Gaillard wasn’t necessarily a key figure in jazz, but he (along with Calloway and Louis Jordan in the jump/swing world) answer Frank Zappa’s musical question Does humour belong in music very much in the affirmative. As jazz evolves, it’s easy to lose sight of the humour as technique, improvisation, and the journey through the music seem to overtake the joy that intrinsic in the making of the music.

One player who straddles the swing and post-swing eras is the aforementioned Art Tatum who had been playing for several years and earning the interest of musicians such as Ellington, Armstrong, and Fletch Henderson. I’m pretty sure his first recordings are the ones here with Adelaide Hall. It’s a little tough, but try to listen to the piano behind Hall’s vocal gymnastics on You Gave Me Everything But Love. Later on, Tatum eschewed playing in groups in favour of solo work, feeling that others couldn’t really keep up with him.

I’ve had the following paragraphs about music publishing waiting to be used for several weeks, but haven’t been able to incorporate it into my looks into the various artists and their interconnections. The main thing is that bands and singers brought jazz to popular compositions – the products of the Brill Building and other Tin Pan Alley houses weren’t necessarily jazz to start with.

Tin Pan Alley – Wikipedia shares that in the Big Band era, the song publishers in places like the Brill Building would send “song pluggers” to the white band leaders and to radio stations to sell the latest songs. So bands like Goodman’s, the Dorseys’, and Miller’s got first crack at songs composed there by folks like the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, and Irving Berlin. The thing about Tin Pan Alley, though, is that the songwriters/lyricists/composers worked in whatever idiom was popular. Broadway, movie revues (think Ziegfeld Follies, for example) and the Big Bands, the popular (pop) music of the 30s and 40s. Later Tin Pan Alley efforts would be more in the pop vocal realm. Acts like the Drifters (On Broadway), Neil Sedaka (Calendar Girl), and The Monkees (Pleasant Valley Sunday, I’m a Believer) all had hits with Brill Building songs. (Another sidenote to bring this full circle – Neil Diamond, who wrote I’m A Believer and three other Monkees hits, was a Brill Building song writer before his own hits as well.)

Next time, Big Bands Go To War!