A history of Jazz Music

by Piero Scaruffi
See also the The History of Rock Music and the The History of Pop Music
Back to the History of Jazz Music | Jazz musicians | Main jazz page
To purchase the book

TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.
All photographs are property of the label/agency that provided them

(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Jazz Music")

(You can also listen to a playlist of this chapter)

New York: The swing soloists

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

The big bands of swing competed to hire the best soloists.

Texas-born white trombonist Jack Teagarden, who was with Paul Whiteman from 1933 till 1938, was (with Miff Mole) the first innovator of the trombone since the New Orleans brass bands. White guitarist Salvatore "Eddie Lang" Massaro from Philadelphia was the first guitar virtuoso, and composed and recorded pieces such as Black And Blue Bottom (september 1926), Stringin' The Blues (november 1926), Doin' Things (june 1928) and Wild Cat (june 1928) with Joe Venuti, and composed and recorded with black blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson the first guitar duets, such as Two Tone Stomp (november 1928), Blue Guitars (may 1929), Guitar Blues (may 1929) and A Handful Of Riffs (may 1929). White violinist Joe Venuti, also from Philadelphia, was the first violin virtuoso, and composed Tempo di Modernage (june 1931).

For a time it looked like black trumpeter Cladys "Jabbo" Smith, could compete with Louis Armstrong. His virtuoso style was legendary after a march 1928 session with Fats Waller on organ, James Johnson on piano and Garvin Bushnell on alto (the Louisiana Sugar Babes), and especially after the 1929 recordings of his own compositions by his own quintet, the Rhythm Aces.

Benny Carter was (with Johnny Hodges) one of the most reliable alto saxophonists of the swing era, but mainly he was a composer of relaxed, atmospheric and catchy pieces such as Blues in My Heart (september 1931), Symphony in Riffs (october 1933), Dream Lullaby (december 1934), When Lights Are Low (june 1936), Cow Cow Boogie (composed in 1942). In 1933 his orchestra featured Wayman Carver, the first major flute soloist of jazz music (Devil's Holiday, october 1933). From 1941 Benny Carter became a composer of Hollywood movie soundtracks. When he returned to jazz, he began to compose extended orchestral suites a` la Duke Ellington and he continued until well into his eighties: Kansas City Suite (september 1960) for Count Basie, the six-movement suite Central City Sketches, performed by the American Jazz Orchestra on Central City Sketches (1987), Harlem Renaissance (1992) and Tales of the Rising Sun (1992), both on Harlem Renaissance (february 1992) performed by a jazz big band and a chamber orchestra with string section.

Oklahoma-raised guitarist Charlie Christian was more of a bluesman than a jazzman because he started playing solo: bluesmen used the guitar as a lead instrument, jazzmen didn't. From the viewpoint of jazz, Christian's guitar was more like a saxophone than like the guitar that had been traditionally played in jazz (a part of the rhythm section). Using Eddie Durham's recent novelty (the electric guitar), Charlie Christian improved over the innovations of acoustic guitarists Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang, and perhaps applied to his instrument the lesson of Lester Young. He developed his style in relative isolation in Oklahoma before being discovered (1939) and brought to New York to join Benny Goodman's sextet and band, armed with an electric guitar. Christian was legendary for creating endless series of variations on a theme, during sessions that could last virtually forever, in a manner whose only precedent was pianist Art Tatum. His Solo Flight (march 1941) with the Goodman orchestra seemed the prelude to a new kind of music altogether. Alas, he died in 1942 at 26 of turbercolosis.

Black trumpeter Roy Eldridge, who arrived in New York in 1930 from Pennsylvania, heralded a new age (the age of bebop), although he played in swing bands. Eldridge initially emulated Louis Armstrong albeit adding a sense of the narrative dimension to the melodic improvisation. But he began to extend the range of the trumpet in some numbers by his 1936 Chicago-based eight-piece band (with his brother Joe as main arranger): Turner Layton's After You've Gone (january 1937), Wabash Stomp (january 1937), boasting one of his most celebrated solos, Heckler's Hop (january 1937). He trained by playing Coleman Hawkins' saxophone solos on trumpet, i.e. by simulating the keys of the saxophone with the movements of his lips. Eldridge (one of the first black soloists to feature in a white jazz band) reached maturity in Gene Krupa's band from 1941 to 1943, his trumpet highlighting their two hits, Hoagy Carmichael's Rockin' Chair (july 1941) and Earl Bostic's Let Me Off Uptown (may 1941), as well as his own Drum Boogie (composed in 1941). Thanks to Eldridge, the phrasing of the trumpet became much more eloquent, assertive and expressive. His improvisations were more intricate and creative. His melodic lines were almost violent by comparison with the previous generation of trumpeters.

Belgian-born gypsy (or, better, "manouche") guitarist Jean-Baptiste "Django" Reinhardt pioneered the creative use of the guitar in jazz even before Christian. The all-strings Quintette Du Hot Club De France, formed in 1934 with French violinist Stephane Grappelli, a bassist and two more guitarists, influenced by folk and classical music and inspired by Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti, had little in common with the trends of American jazz. At first they revisited American standards such as Philip Braham's Limehouse Blues (october 1935) and Harry Akst's Dinah (december 1934), but then they began to work on original material in a chamber-jazz style that betrayed the influence of Debussy and Ravel (and gypsy music), not of Armstrong and Ellington: Runnin' Wild (april 1935), Djangology (september 1935), the solo Parfum (april 1937), Daphne (september 1937), Minor Swing (november 1937), Swing Guitar (june 1938), Nocturne (february 1938), Mystery Pacific (april 1937), Nuages (october 1940), Belleville (march 1942). Nonetheless some of Reinhardt's most breathtaking solos were variations on other people's material, such as Gus Kahn's I'll See You In My Dreams (1939). Extroverted, gentle and warm, Reinhardt relied on acrobatic jazz chording and breakneck finger-picking, as far removed from the blues as a jazz musician could be.

  • Stephane Grappelli's violin was the perfect counterpart to Reindhart's guitar: Grappelli's multi-layered improvisations, that left a feeling of cascading notes blowing in the wind, were graceful and aristocratic and imbued with a childish verve.

    Coleman Hawkins, the man who had coined the jazz language of the tenor saxophone with solos such as the one in Fletcher Henderson's The Stampede (may 1926), was also instrumental in changing the way jazz soloists improvised: he improvised (or, better, invented) using the notes of chords in the song, instead of paraphrasing/ embellishing the melody (like everyone else had done). He improvised on the chord structure of a tune rather than on its melody. Somehow the tenor saxophone, that had not been a favorite instrument of jazz soloists, lent itself to this Copernican revolution.
    His own complex composition Queer Notions (august 1933) predated bebop. He also had a major hit on his own with an atmospheric, and almost lethargic, version of Johnny Green's ballad Body And Soul (october 1939), that literally redefined the genre. Other classy interpretations followed: Benny Carter's When The Lights Are Low (september 1939), a collaboration with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton featuring a reed section of giants (Hawkins, Benny Carter, Chu Berry, Ben Webster) plus Charlie Christian and Dizzy Gillespie; George Gershwin's The Man I Love (december 1943) and Cliff Burwell's Sweet Lorraine (december 1943), both in a quartet with pianist Eddie Heywood, a quartet with bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Shelly Manne; Harry Warren's I Only Have Eyes for You (january 1944) and Jimmy McHugh's I'm in the Mood for Love (january 1944), both in a quintet with pianist Teddy Wilson and trumpeter Roy Eldridge. He transitioned into bebop when he hired Thelonious Monk for his quartet (1944) and recorded Rainbow Mist (may 1944) with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach on drums (Gillspie's Woody'n You and Salt Peanuts, and a lyrical interpretation of Jerome Kern's Yesterdays). His Hawk's Variations (january 1945) and Picasso (1946) were the first major recordings of solo-saxophone pieces.
    His main legacy was in the ballad form. His "erotic" vibrato-rich style danced around the melody in order to build tension, and then danced out of it so as to release the tension in a languid swoon.

    Two female singers became famous in the swing era: Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. The former, who sang just about everything that might please an audience in a polished multiple-octave voice, was accepted by the white establishment, and had her greatest hit with Al "Van Alexander" Feldman's A-Tisket A-Tasket (may 1938), while the latter, who sang mostly unpleasant topics in a rather unattractive voice, was always sort of a renegade.

    Eleanora "Billie Holiday" Fagan was just about the opposite of Ella Fitzgerald. Her singing was all about class (her range was just a little over one octave) and emotion (the sound of pain, of both ancestral and personal pain), not power or virtuosity.
    She had a fondness for disturbing material, and none of her classics was joyful: Gus Arnheim's and Abe Lyman's I Cried For You (june 1936), Lewis "Abel Meeropol" Allen's Strange Fruit (april 1939), a protest song about a lynching, her own Fine and Mellow (april 1939), Arthur Herzog's God Bless the Child (may 1941), about the "Great Migration", Johnny Green's I Cover The Waterfront (august 1941), Rezso Seress' Gloomy Sunday (august 1941), about suicide, Roger "Ram" Ramirez's Lover Man (april 1944).
    Instead of simply delivering lines, Holiday would make each note sigh, bleed and cry. They proved her the closest thing to a French chansonnier that American jazz ever had. The backing was not orchestral but rarified, mostly by small combos led by Benny Goodman's pianist Teddy Wilson. She recorded with Lester Young a few numbers in a sophisticated chamber-jazz style: George Gershwin's The Man I Love (december 1939) and Seymour Simons' All of Me (march 1941).
    For her excesses of drugs and alcohol, she was banned from night-clubs and arrested repeatedly. She died poor at 44.

    Fletcher Henderson's bassist John Kirby in 1930 revolutionized the rhythm section of jazz. The epitome of chamber jazz in the swing era was the sextet (Charlie Shavers on trumpet, two reeds, Billy Kyle on piano, bass and drums) formed by Kirby after leaving Henderson. Their emphasis on intricate arrangements, clockwork craftmanship and introverted moods contrasted with the prevailing habits of the big-band era and predated cool jazz. Notwithstanding the success of Shavers's Undecided (october 1938), most of their repertoire was borrowed from classical music.

    Jimmy Blanton (Duke Ellington) and Milt Hinton (Cab Calloway) were the other bassists that brought about one of the most influential changes in the history of jazz ensembles.

    Benny Goodman's pianist Teddy Wilson was perhaps the most elegant of the swing era, a less intrepid but more emotional version of Art Tatum. Blues In C Sharp Minor (may 1936) was his classic stylistic exhibition.

    Fats Waller's tenor saxophonist Gene Sedric had recorded the first piece of solo saxophone in the history of jazz, Saxophone Doodle (may 1937), predating Coleman Hawkins by almost a decade.

    The first magazine devoted to jazz music, Down Beat, was published in 1934. Commodore (1938) and Blue Note (1939) were the first labels entirely devoted to jazz music.

    During the 1940s the swing big band had become the voice of America abroad. Its dominance of the domestic market had become no less impressive. American music was ruled by African music for the first time in its history.

    Next chapter | Back to the Index
  • TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.