Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Swing Set by David Rickert: Deconstructing Anthems

David Rickert has written a series of articles over the past five years that are essential reading for anyone interested in swing and big band, and especially the songs that we (and Hollywood in the form of soundtracks for period pieces) associate with that era.

The following seven songs, and background on the band and musicians who performed them, are covered:

  1. Benny Goodman: "Sing, Sing, Sing"
  2. Count Basie: "One O'Clock Jump"
  3. Duke Ellington: "Cotton Tail"
  4. Artie Shaw: "Begin the Beguine"
  5. Tommy Dorsey: "Marie"
  6. Lionel Hampton: "Flying Home"
  7. Glenn Miller: "In the Mood"
Benny Goodman. In Benny Goodman: "Sing, Sing, Sing" Rickert provides an excellent background of the Goodman band during the time leading to and including the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, and pays a lot of attention to the key musicians who made Sing, Sing, Sing pure magic that night. While we drummers tend to think that Gene Krupa made that song, Rickert's analysis shows the contributions of Jess Stacy and Harry James, both of whom spiced the piece to the point that it will forever be the definitive rendition of the song.

I also enjoyed the background of the song itself, written by Louis Prima, one of my favorite musicians (I am Italian-American, so Prima provided the background music of my youth!) Indeed, I have a clip from Louis Prima: The Wildest of the original version with Jimmy Vincent in the drum chair. It was a great song before Goodman got his hands on it, but electrifying with Goodman's (and Krupa's) imprint. You can purchase the CD of the entire concert or download just Sing, Sing, Sing to your MP3 player (the entire 12:02 minutes).

Here is a clip that contains most of the original version from the concert (Youtube imposes a 10 minute limitation, leaving out approximately two minutes):

Count Basie. Rickert's article on Count Basie: "One O'Clock Jump" is comprehensive in his treatment of the song and musicians, but does leave out the interesting fact that it was originally titled Blue Balls, which was considered too risque by radio announcers to be used. Hence, One O'Clock Jump became the official title when it was released to record. What I like is Rickert's description of what set the Basie band apart, and especially his mention of the All-American Rhythm Section (Walter Page on bass, Freddie Green on rhythm guitar and Jo Jones on drums.) I personally consider Basie himself to be an integral part of the All-American Rhythm Section, but Rickert has a direct quote from Basie saying otherwise. Regardless, the song, and indeed the band during that period, were magic. You can download One O'Clock Jump to your MP3 player or purchase One O'Clock Jump: The Very Best of Count Basie, which contains the title song and 13 other original recordings that have been digitally remastered.

My favorite version is this clip from the mid 1950s; however, this clip shows the original line-up:

Duke Ellington. While I hold Ellington (and his alter ego, Billy Strayhorn) to be a national treasure, I'll confess that I listen to Basie a lot more. The bluesy jazz that was born in Kansas City touches my soul, and, of course, the All-American Rhythm Section would appeal to any drummer. That said, I have a deep and abiding fascination with Ellington, ranging from his compositions to his his approach to leadership (I am a retired naval officer). Rickert's article Duke Ellington: "Cotton Tail" was more focused on Ben Webster's contribution to this great song, but there were some interesting insights about Ellington as well. Specifically,

... It's no wonder, then, that he had an uneasy relationship with swing; "Jazz is music, he said. "Swing is business. He longed to get away from the three-minute pop song and devote his time to longer, more ambitious compositions.
To me it all adds more data points to that complex puzzle of Duke Ellington the man and the musical genius.

If you want to delve deeply into some of Ellington's best work, I recommend Ken Burns JAZZ Collection: Duke Ellington, or you may just want to add Cotton Tail to your MP3 player. Here is an excellent clip of the song that is one of the truly great pieces from the era, and the one that secured Ben Webster's place in jazz history:

Artie Shaw. Begin the Beguine is a Cole Porter composition that became forever associated with Artie Shaw. In Artie Shaw: "Begin the Beguine" Rickert does an outstanding job of deconstructing the song, while providing insights into Shaw. As stated in the article, during the era there was considerable polarization between Goodman's and Shaw's fans, and there was professional rivalry between the two musicians as well. Personally I love listening to both, but the game point goes to Shaw in my estimation - after all, Shaw managed to marry one of the world's most beautiful women: Ava Gardner. Seriously, I think Shaw deserves greater study because his name appears to be losing the recognition that Goodman's name still enjoys. If you want some insights into Shaw the man I recommend Artie Shaw: The Reluctant 'King of Swing', which is an interview conducted by NPR in 2002.

If you are a Shaw fan, definitely grab Begin the Beguine 10-CD Box Set (an incredible bargain for the price), or download Begin the Beguine to your MP3 player. This clip shows why Rickert selected Begin the Beguine as one of the anthems:

Tommy Dorsey, more rooted in 2/4 Dixieland than in 4/4 swing, was a martinet as a band leader (much like Goodman), and in many ways was the antithesis of a swing musician (and certainly a jazz musician) with his highly orchestrated, note-for-note performances. Some of this is discussed in Rickert's Tommy Dorsey: "Marie". Regardless of Dorsey's style (and he did learn to swing eventually), Marie is one of the most beautiful compositions to come out of the era discussed, and Tommy's playing shows why he is considered to be one of the best trombonists ever. While I am not a die hard Dorsey fan, I frequently listen to this song, and it is often used in movie soundtracks from the period. One thing I will say about Dorsey is he had great taste in drummers, with Dave Tough being one of the best in Dorsey's lineup. For that reason alone I have some Dorsey albums that I frequently play.

If you want Marie on your MP3 player you can download it from Amazon. If you want to explore more Dorsey hits, I recommend The Best of Tommy Dorsey as a starting point. Here is the song in it's glorious beauty:

Lionel Hampton - Hamp - is one of my favorite musicians and drummers (he was no slouch behind a drum kit!) Moreover, Hamp was a consummate showman who held entertainment to be an important part of musical performances. This is in direct contrast to many of his peers who were purists, more intent on perfect delivery of a song, or compositions that may or may not lend themselves to dance. Rickert's article on Lionel Hampton: "Flying Home", thankfully, discusses Hamp the person as well as the genesis of Flying Home. In a future post I'll discuss Hamp in more detail, but for now check out the 11-song CD, Flying Home for a taste of Hamp's high energy work, or download the title song to your MP3 player. Here is Hamp performaing Flying Home:

Glenn Miller. When swing is discussed many "purists" dismiss Glenn Miller. Here is a quote by Buddy Rich, which sums up such attitudes:

I often say, in a little bit of humor, something to the effect that Miller's music was so bad that I wouldn't be surprised if one of our planes shot him down! I feel that there were enough people who wanted to hear good music, as opposed to what Miller was laying down, that it wouldn't be too unreal to visualize that.
What Rich and others fail to take into account is Miller wrote and performed some of the most popular music of his era. Music that was not only danceable, but swung. More importantly, many of Miller's compositions are those which immediately evoke memories or associations with the era - especially World War II - nearly to the exclusion of any other bands. Consider In The Mood: it is immediately recognizable to this day by young and old. And, dismissive comments by the purists and Mr. Rich notwithstanding, I defy anyone to listen to it and not tap their foot.

Rickert did an excellent job describing Miller and his music in Glenn Miller: In the Mood, and I hope that adds a balance to Miller's music. Listen to Glenn Miller's Greatest Hits to see why I think his music is important, and for moments when you need a lift, download In The Mood to your MP3 player.

In my next post I'll provide recommended books, videos and other resources on each of the seven musicians who made this remarkable music.

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