Thursday, July 8, 2010

New Orleans Jazz (Essay) (by Scott Yanow)

Arguably the happiest of all forms of music is New Orleans jazz and its later descendant Dixieland. The sound of several horns all improvising together on fairly simple chord changes with definite roles for each instrument but a large amount of freedom cannot help but sound consistently joyful.

In New Orleans jazz, the emphasis is on ensembles rather than solos. The style overlaps with Dixieland and classic jazz; to confuse matters more, all three idioms have often been called "traditional jazz" while the charts of Billboard Magazine classify any style of jazz with a walking bass as "traditional!" New Orleans jazz usually features a trumpeter (or a cornetist) in the lead and not wandering far from the melody. The trombonist plays harmonies (occasional saxophonists have similar roles) while the clarinetist is free to supply countermelodies and fills around the brass. While the tuba player (or string bassist) emphasizes the first and third beats of the bar, the drummer amd the banjoist (or guitarist) accent the second and fourth and the pianist often pounds chords on all four beats. The most exciting New Orleans jazz groups are fairly dense during the ensembles (with so much going on that they resemble a three-ring circus) while remaining quite coherent and purposeful.

New Orleans jazz (and jazz itself) really began with the brass bands. In New Orleans (starting in the 19th century), brass bands were plentiful and hired for everything from weddings, parties and parades to funerals. Musicians who might be playing the same song for 15 or 20 minutes naturally chose to come up with fresh variations as they marched and the result was jazz. Influenced by church music and spirituals (some of which have been effectively turned into New Orleans jazz), blues singers (who generally performed solo, backing their vocals with their own guitar while performing on street corners), work songs, marches, ragtime and folk music of the 1800s, jazz began to have its own identity by 1895 when cornetist Buddy Bolden (the music's first legend) formed his earliest group. Bolden was the first New Orleans "King" among cornetists. In future years (after mental illness forced his retirement in 1906) he would be succeeded by Freddie Keppard and Joe "King" Oliver before Louis Armstrong permanently gained the distinction of the top New Orleans trumpeter.

Because there were no jazz recordings before the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917 (and the first black New Orleans group, Kid Ory's band, would not make any records until 1921 or 1922), one can only guess how the early New Orleans groups sounded. Some bands (such as Bolden's) emphasized the lowdown blues and fairly basic chord changes while other had more sophisticated (and sometimes classically-trained) musicians who played written-out arrangements based on ragtime and folk songs. Since New Orleans bands played at a wide variety of functions (from rundown bars and dances to more polite concerts) and parades were plentiful, versatile musicians with plenty of endurance were always in great demand!

New Orleans jazz would have remained just a regional force were it not for two factors: an exodus of musicians from the area starting around 1910 and the booming recording industry of the 1920s. Both trends resulted in the music receiving exposure outside of the South and influencing musicians everywhere.

The exodus began when New Orleans musicians, having outgrown the small pond, decided to explore the rest of the country. Some, like pianist Jelly Roll Morton, traveled throughout the South and spent time on the West Coast. Others eventually headed for Chicago. Years later the legend would be that the closing of New Orleans' red-light district Storyville in 1917 led to the city's musicians going "up the Mississippi" to Chicago but that is rather simplistic. Few other than solo pianists played in Storyville's bordellos, not all of the players went immediately to Chicago and New Orleans continued to have a viable (if reduced) music scene in the 1920s. However many of the city's top musicians did eventually end up for a period in Chicago where by the early '20s they were dominating the city's black music world.

The first jazz band to ever record, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, was a white group that was musically limited but frequently exciting. Their first record release, "Livery Stable Blues," featured the horns (led by cornetist Nick LaRocca) imitating animals and it became a sensation; the group also introduced such future Dixieland standards as "Tiger Rag," "Original Dixieland One Step," "Margie," "Indiana" and "At the Jazz Band Ball." The ODJB (which was fairly original for the time although certainly not the originators of jazz that LaRocca sometimes claimed they were), introduced jazz to many listeners and in 1919 during a pioneering tour they brought jazz to Europe for the first time. So strong was the group's initial impact that during 1919-21, the word "jazz" was being applied to nearly every new song and quite a few heated white bands did their best to play in the ODJB style.

The next big step forward (at least on records) was made by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. In 1922 the group (featuring leader-cornetist Paul Mares, the gifted but ill-fated clarinetist Leon Rappolo and trombonist George Brunies) made recordings that sounded a decade ahead of the ODJB. They featured short solos, high musicianship and (unlike the ODJB) the horns were strong improvisers. Mares later modestly claimed that he got many of his ideas from another Chicago-based New Orleans import, King Oliver.

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, which recorded in 1923, was the finest of all the classic New Orleans jazz groups. Although they emphasized ensembles, the band also had influential soloists in cornetist Oliver, the great clarinetist Johnny Dodds and the young second cornetist, Louis Armstrong. Oliver had sent to New Orleans for Armstrong the previous year and the interplay between the two cornets gave the group an explosive power and spontaneity that amazed listeners.

Louis Armstrong has sometimes been called jazz's first truly significant soloist but actually he was preceded by Sidney Bechet. Bechet, a remarkable clarinetist and soprano-saxophonist whose wide vibrato made him either loved or detested by listeners, was a virtuoso whose early tours of Europe (starting in 1919) gave him fame overseas although it reduced his initial impact at home. He would end up his life in the 1950s fairly unknown in the U.S. but a national celebrity in France where he resided and played in his timeless style.

Another important early force was pianist-composer Jelly Roll Morton. Although Morton's tendency to brag (claiming to have invented jazz in 1902) has resulted in him being underrated by many, he was jazz's first important composer, a highly original pianist and an important bandleader in Chicago. His recordings with his Red Hot Peppers (particularly during 1926-28) had a perfect balance of worked-out ensembles, group improvising, brief solos and dynamics. Morton's compositions (which sometimes had three or four themes similar to ragtime) were a transition between ragtime and swing and in fact one of his earliest songs, "King Porter Stomp," became a standard among swing big bands in the 1930s during a period when Jelly Roll himself was completely forgotten.

The decision of Louis Armstrong to leave King Oliver's band in 1924 (in addition to a money dispute, his wife Lil Armstrong convinced Louis that he needed room to grow) ended the Creole Jazz Band and resulted in a major development. Armstrong moved to New York to join Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra. At the time New York musicians may have been technically advanced but they trailed behind the New Orleans players in blues feeling and ability to swing. Armstrong's virtuosity immediately impressed New Yorkers and by the time he returned to Chicago a year later, he was responsible for most top jazzmen virtually changing the way they phrased, used space and drama and developed their ideas.

It is somewhat ironic that Louis Armstrong has always symbolized New Orleans jazz for, starting with his first Hot Five recordings in late '25, he paved the end of the road for classic New Orleans jazz, starting the gradual transition towards swing. Armstrong was such a brilliant soloist that it seemed a waste for him to always be playing in ensembles. The early Hot Fives found him sharing the spotlight with trombonist Kid Ory (his former employer in the late teens) and clarinetist Johnny Dodds but by 1927 he was so far ahead of his contemporaries that he had pushed the music beyond New Orleans jazz.

Although many New Orleans players were recording (including trumpeters Red Allen, Jabbo Smith and King Oliver, trombonist Ory, clarinetists Dodds and Jimmie Noone and the groups of Jelly Roll Morton), by the late '20s the improvised ensembles of New Orleans jazz were gradually being replaced by written-out arrangements. With the 1929 stock market crash, New Orleans jazz largely went underground and such musicians as Oliver, Morton and Dodds stopped recording altogether while others had to adapt to the newer styles.

In New Orleans itself, such trumpet kings emerged as Manuel Perez, Buddy Petit and Chris Kelly but, other than occasional field trips to the South conducted by Victor, few recordings actually took place in New Orleans; in fact none of those three legendary trumpeters made any records. By the late '20s, jazz in New Orleans itself was being influenced by records made up North and was gradually evolving with the times and often losing its uniqueness.

The Depression years were a barren time for New Orleans jazz although the music was still being performed. New Orleans-styled trumpeters Wingy Manone and Louis Prima had success with combo recordings, Bob Crosby's big band featured Dixieland solos in a swing setting and Louis Armstrong was quite famous (although he was regularly touring with a big band and would not return to the New Orleans format until 1947). By the late '30s the jazz world was ready for a New Orleans revival.

The 1939 book Jazzmen summed up jazz history to that point and made readers aware of the existence of the thus far undocumented trumpeter Bunk Johnson who was languishing in retirement. With the rise in popularity of Dixieland (whether it be the Eddie Condon-associated groups or the San Francisco style jazz of Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band which took Oliver's Creole Jazz Band as a direct model), jazz historians and fanatics started to descend on New Orleans in hopes of discovering some lost links to the past. Bunk Johnson, who had been a major figure in New Orleans during 1910-30, was given a new set of teeth along with a horn. Soon Bunk became the symbol of ancient New Orleans, he came up North and he began recording fairly frequently. His original band included clarinetist George Lewis and trombonist Jim Robinson and Johnson was proclaimed by his supporters to be playing "true jazz," unspoiled by the influence of swing. Actually Bunk, who soon became erratic due to his excessive drinking, was well aware of swing and enjoyed incorporating current pop tunes into his repertoire but his ensemble-oriented style had strong hints of the past and he enjoyed playing the role of a New Orleans trumpet king even if his playing was not consistently at that level.

While Bunk Johnson had a few years of glory before returning back into obscurity and other veterans were brought out of retirement, New Orleans jazz tended to be overshadowed by Dixieland during the 1945-60 period. George Lewis, who had also returned to New Orleans after a period, formed his own band by 1950 out of the nucleus of Bunk's group and became one of the most popular figures in the movement for the next 15 years. Another renowned group was led by trombonist Kid Ory who with either Teddy Buckner or Alvin Alcorn on trumpet perfectly balanced solo space with exciting ensembles. In the 1950s there were really two types of New Orleans jazz players, the more primitive (at least technically) stylists who played with sincerity, simplicity and spontaneity (such as Lewis and veteran trumpeter Oscar Celestin) and the slicker and usually younger Dixieland groups which were no less enjoyable (such as the Dukes of Dixieland); often there was a lot of overlapping between the two idioms.

While Dixieland faded in popularity in the U.S. by the late '50s, New Orleans jazz received a major boost in the early '60s with the opening of Preservation Hall, which served as a homebase for the veteran players. Soon a Preservation Hall Jazz Band was formed to take the music worldwide and, although the group declined in later years, it did serve as a way to keep the music popular. Several small labels in the 60s (most notably George Buck's Jazzology and GHB companies and Big Bill Bissonnette's Jazz Crusade label) documented the music of such players as trumpeter Kid Thomas Valentine, altoist Captain John Handy, trombonist Jim Robinson, clarinetist George Lewis, Billie and De De Pierce, pianist Alton Purnell and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band among others.

With the passing of time, New Orleans jazz declined greatly by the 1970s. However it began to enjoy a bit of renaissance in the 1980s when Wynton Marsalis, who originally played hard bop and post bop, began to explore his roots. Marsalis paid tribute to Louis Armstrong, King Oliver and even Buddy Bolden in some of his projects and his example was followed at least on a part-time basis by other New Orleans modernists who enjoyed incorporating parade rhythms and some group improvising in their music. The rise of pianists Harry Connick Jr. and Marcus Roberts, trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Leroy Jones and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (a modern brass band that combined their heritage with r&b) also helped to keep classic New Orleans jazz alive and fresh. In the 1990s New Orleans jazz is played at festivals, jazz parties, overseas and even in New Orleans itself. And it's still the happiest music on earth!


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