Past Masters - my inspiration
Charismatic or what? These early jazz (and ragtime) masters had volcanic creative powers which we can scarcely comprehend nowadays. They have been the consistant inspiration throughout my musical career and I have never grown tired of listening to their genius, which came along just in time to be captured forever on 78 records. I've mentioned just a few of them below - there are so many more one could include. Some were brilliant composers, others expressed their talents through astonishing musicianship. Some did both. While the musicians I work with are good and extremely accomplished, these people had something beyond what we can achieve in today's culturally deprived world. They thrived in their musically rich environment of the early American twentieth century, and possessed an unaffected joie-de-vivre. To me they are like musical demi-gods and I'm certain we will not see their like again!
I am often surprised at the number of people who don’t realise that Joplin was an African-American. Perhaps this is because of the severe classicism of his piano rags and the fact that he wrote a quite presentable opera called Treemonisha, which has just been revived at the time of writing in 2010. Less surprising is the number of people who request “The Sting”, mistaking the name of the movie for the 1902 rag “The Entertainer”. This happens so often that I find myself asking “Sting, where is thy death?”
Ragtime in its purest form was a highly classical, composed genre which flourished between 1899 and 1917. In its less pure form – “popular” or “tin-pan alley” ragtime, it gradually loosened up to become jazz. Although there were other fine “classical” ragtime composers, Joplin was the brightest genius of them all.
Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton
Jelly Roll Morton was an itinerant piano player, pimp and pool-hustler who claimed to have invented jazz. It is certainly true that he created the first fully integrated swinging improvisational jazz piano style – a remarkable synthesis of European Classical, Ragtime, Blues, Marching Band and Latin American sounds, all propelled along with a beguiling, loping swing which no-one has ever successfully copied. This is what makes the best jazz so beguiling – it’s rhythm comes from some deeper source in the human body/mind and cannot be reproduced except by people in a similar spiritual place. In other words, the early styles of jazz cannot really be taught, because their rhythmic source is a non-rational region of the mind! And that is also why early jazz has so much more emotional content and musical colour than later styles of popular music. As Jelly Roll said, jazz should be “sweet, soft with plenty rhythm”.
Louis Armstrong – “Satchmo”
Because Louis had a number of pop hits in the 1950s and 60s a lot of people don’t realise that he was the most influential jazz musician who ever lived. In fact he took the basic rhythmic and melodic ideas of early jazz and extended both these elements so far that he virtually doubled the existing alphabet of the jazz language. His playing was hot, extroverted, technically brilliant and his improvisations so accomplished that they could be mistaken for carefully worked out compositions. Later jazz musicians scorned his unabashed showmanship, but this was a totally natural part of his performance – he enjoyed entertaining people and was relieved to have a full larder, having been born into poverty in New Orleans. He rubbed shoulders with famous singers and actors but was never anything but himself. And he could make the hairs on your neck stand up with a sequence of perfectly timed notes issuing from some mysterious well of authentic creative humanity.
Edward “Duke” Ellington
Edward “Duke” Ellington, like “Fats” Waller, was part of the 1920s/30s Harlem jazz scene and was strongly influenced by the older stride piano players. He was a brilliant composer /arranger and for a number of years his style evolved in the hedonistic cauldron of the famous “Cotton Club”, where all manner of celebrities would congregate to watch exotic dancers and hear the superb musicians. Whereas Fats Waller was happy to be a virtuoso entertainer, Ellington consistently innovated new sounds and concepts and was remarkable in managing to sustain a large band from the ‘20s to the early ‘70s. But no matter how modern he became, he always maintained that “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”.
Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke
Bix was the most influential white jazz musician of the 1920s. As Louis Armstrong said “a lot of people wanted to play like Bix. Ain’t none of them done it yet”. Bix’s style was almost the complete opposite of Armstrong’s. Introverted, minimalistic and cool. Hoagy Carmichael (the famous songwriter) compared Bix’s cornet to “soft velvet hammers chiming on a glass”. If you listen to any cornet solo on a 1920s dance band record, you will doubtless hear the influence of Bix. Sadly, while Armstrong came from an impoverished but integrated social situation, Bix grew up in a jazz-hating middle class household in the mid-west, and in his short life was constantly in conflict with his parents over his jazz career. He drank himself to death by the age of 28.
Billie Holiday remains today one of the few jazz musicians to still fascinate younger people. Part of this is to do with her remarkable voice, but another fascination is the rock-star like life she led, descending into dark cellars of alcoholism and drug abuse. Her voice contains the very essence of jazz and blues, having been influenced by her two heroes Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, the “empress of the blues”. Any singer wanting to sing jazz of any kind would benefit from listening to Billie’s beguiling swing and her precise, percussive tone. It was not a huge voice and her range was quite small – and yet there is something completely un-copyable about that jazzy little bark, the product of a harsh childhood surrounded by music. And to her great credit, she never “skats”!
Fats Waller was my first jazz piano inspiration. He was unusual in being both a great musician and an irrepressible entertainer. He had an amazing ability to make the piano “swing like a train” while playing light, balletic, teasing phrases. Listening to him playing is like having a warm musical shower that leaves your scalp tingling. He could eat 12 pork chops at a go and when settling onto the piano stool would say “are you all on, Fats?” He was taught by the great James P. Johnson and is one of the “Big 3” Harlem stride piano masters, the other being Willie “The Lion” Smith.