Here’s the deal: I’ll never be able to listen to music the same way I did when I was a teenager. I’ll never absorb it the same way; memorize it; learn it. Two factors, the first one is obvious: i’ve listened to way more music now, it’s way easier to listen to even more music now, and the real world obviously intrudes and i don’t get to put on the headphones and stare at the ceiling while listening to music very often. The other reason (perhaps even the other side of the same coin) is that I’ve been purchasing more and more jazz LPs. This mostly lyric-less form is obviously harder to memorize… longer compositions, less structure, more solos and improvisation, plus I don’t play any instruments, so I’m not able to approach these records from that angle. And I love it. It makes sense to me, and I trust my ear and, well, I’m happy it’s where I am as a listener right now. But I do feel like I’m not quite getting under the hood of some of these recordings.
This project is an attempt to dig a little deeper into it all. Sure, I know the players and the labels and the producers and writers, at least superficially. But do I know the chronology, the precedents, the reasons why? No. I do not. And sadly, I’m certain in most cases that I’ll never know. I’m not going to become an expert (thankfully, I’m not really trying to become one), but I’d like to be at least 99th percentile, you know?
That’s the origins of this project: It’s not to educate you, it’s to educate me. But I may as well post some of the results in the chance it helps connect the dots for anybody else out there.
I started with a simple idea: identify 50 of the most important players in jazz. I made the list off the top of my head. The first 30-35 were easy. Those came down as fast as I could type. Then the next 10 took maybe 5 more minutes. Then I looked at some of the recent purchases; scanned the collection. Expanded the list to 70-75 players, then whittled it back down to 50. Are there omissions or arguable choices? Of course. One of my criteria was that I had to own at least one LP by each of the players on my list, so I’ve missed some things just for that dumb reason. And I did willfully pick a wider date range of releases than I probably needed to, simply to get a wider window to explore.
Then I went and picked one LP from each of those folks. This is, of course, a fool’s mission with jazz: Max Roach plays on hundreds of records, not just “Max Roach” records. But I set the rule: whether talking about Ron Carter or Don Cherry or John Coltrane, the LP I selected had to be originally attributed to that player as the artist on the cover/spine.
I also didn’t necessarily pick the best or most well-known title by each artist. First, I don’t own every record, so I was just using what I have. And secondly, there’s already plenty written about “Kind Of Blue” or “Monk’s Dream” or “A Night in Tunisia” or “Saxophone Colossus.” I highly doubt I have anything to add to that canon.
I pulled the 50 LPs out of the stacks, then I arranged them chronologically by “primary recording date.” Which means I’m already fudging the numbers. What I have now is a pile of 50 albums ranked in order from oldest to newest by recording date (NOT release date).
I want to learn more about the world the recordings were created in. I want to understand them better, and I want understand popular and other music better. I want to put them in context in their own time, so that I can hopefully better understand them in the context of my own time.
Some notes about what you are about to read before we proceed any further: some of what is going to follow may actually, non-intuitively, be a bit subjective. Firstly, finding accurate release dates and publication dates is sometimes a bit sketchy, so I’ll be using the best guess of those who edit wikipedia pages and write blogs and such. Secondly, I’m going to be doing the picking, and while i do not have an agenda (or at least I don’t believe I have one just yet), I may be drawn to items which seem to be related or potentially can be woven into a bit of a narrative. Then again, perhaps not. I won’t know until I do the researching surrounding each set of dates. That’s part of the discovery of the context of these works. I don’t claim to be able to thoroughly understand or dissect the zeitgeist of a few certain days 34-66 years ago, but I should hope you wouldn’t believe anybody that claims they can really do so. I wasn’t there for any of these recording sessions… I don’t know what access (or care) any of these players or producers had for current events, film, popular music, architecture, etc. But what i’m trying to do is simply list some things that they MIGHT have known or been paying attention to, or merely at least have been exposed to. I’m not going to say “here’s a New Yorker article Charlie Parker would have read” nor am i going to conclude that Charlie Parker would have known the significance the founding of North Korea would have for world politics, well, up to this day (and obviously further into the future than I can predict). But I can know that on certain dates certain articles were published prominently in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Harper’s. I can tell you that on certain days certain songs were #1 in their respective charts (and here I’m going to need to be subjective again… if one song was #1 for ten weeks, and then bumped from #1 on the date i’m looking for, well… I’m probably going to conclude that the bumped song is actually “the biggest song in the USA before the recording session”. Perhaps that isn’t the most accurate distinction, but I ask this: which song is probably more likely to be hummed by somebody walking down the street or heard on the radio more times? I’m willing to wager it’s the song that was just #1 for ten weeks in a row.)
Books, architecture… who knows, really? I don’t. Just making some guesses, and obviously looking back at architecture with 34-66 years of hindsight is a lot easier than trying to imagine new buildings as they were built and how they were held by those that viewed them. Would the opening of a store in San Francisco been reported (and pictured) anywhere in NYC within the next few months? I can tell you this: Frank Lloyd Wright is mentioned 4 times in the New York Times in 1948, and only once was it really to do about any of his designs (November 19, 1948): http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F00D16FF3D5E167B93CBA8178AD95F4C8485F9. And even then it didn’t show a picture of the planned theatre, but just a description of it. (and some grandiose statements from Frank Lloyd Wright: “Before a small, informal gathering of architects, designers, theatrical producers and actors at the Plaza Hotel, Mr. Wright described the first theatre [design] of his long career as the solution of physical problems that have beset the stage for centuries and as the probable answer to its survival in the face of being ‘done to death by the movies.’”). Thanks for saving live theater, Frank Lloyd Wright! So: am I going to go down the first rabbit hole only to find yet ANOTHER smaller rabbit hole (attempting to not just find out what important architecture was created in the weeks/months before the recording session, but also attempt to figure out if that architecture was trumpeted/heralded/critiqued/publicized in any way that the players may have come across)? To be clear, my answer is “Fuck no.” At best, I’m setting up the pins; it’s up to you or somebody else to knock ‘em down.
A further note about recording session dates: While many jazz records were recorded in a single session in a single day, sometimes some extra songs from another session are used, or the LP is otherwise filled-out. I’m going to list the recording of the record under the date on which the majority of the music was recorded. I’m not going by release date for these purposes… While I’m interested in the release dates of these records, what I’m really trying to explore here is the CONTEXT of these works. There’s that word “context” again. One of those words that is actually a bit difficult to explain, but you absolutely know it when you see it. The definition of context is: “the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs.” Synonyms are: “environment” and “setting”. So, i’m using it wrong, as I’m talking about the PRESUMED interrelated conditions in which these recordings were created. Context, minus authority. In other words: the internet.
That just went full circle, didn’t it?
#01: Charlie Parker – Broadcast Performances Vol. 2
Artist: Charlie Parker
Album: Broadcast Performances Vol. 2
Primary Recording Date: September 4th, 1948 (I already made an exception to the “primary recording date” rule here… most of this record was recorded on January 1st, 1949, but since these recordings were originally live radio broadcasts, and not a studio recording session, I felt it made the most sense to use the earliest date.)
Players: Charlie Parker (alto saxophone), Curly Russell (bass), Tommy Potter (bass), Joe Harris (drums), Max Roach (drums), Al Haig (piano), Tadd Dameron (piano), Kenny Dorham (trumpet), Miles Davis (trumpet)
Original release information: ESP-Disk (I’m fiddling with the digital files here, fyi. ESP originally released 14 LPs of these live Charlie Parker recordings. Later, Savoy released various CDs of the same recordings. I’ve taken the exact songs/takes which are on the LP, extracted them from the Savoy CDs, and placed them into the digital files below. If you are looking to purchase these digital works, you should search for “Charlie Parker: The Complete Live Performances On Savoy (4-cd Set)”
Where Purchased: Gimme Gimme Records in 2005 (I think)
City/State: New York, NY
Price: $8 (approx)
#1 song on the pop charts: “Twelfth Street Rag” – Pee Wee Hunt
#1 song on the R&B charts: “I Can’t Go On Without You” – Bull Moose Jackson and His Buffalo Bearcats
#1 song on the country charts: “Bouquet Of Roses” – Eddy Arnold
Most popular movie: “Johnny Belinda” – released September 14, 1948, this film with a rape as part of the subject matter is widely considered to be the first Hollywood film for which the “Motion Picture Production Code” restrictions on the subject were modified, allowing the film to be made. Although released ten days after the first recording date on this LP, I’m guessing it’s possible there may have already been some advertising and controversy brewing about this film. “Sorry, Wrong Number” was released on September 1st, and “That Lady in Ermine” was released August 24th, both of which were in the Top 20 grossing films of 1948.
Most popular fiction book: “The Naked and the Dead” – Norman Mailer
Most popular non-fiction book: “The Gathering Storm” – Winston Churchill
Most popular radio program: “The Walter Winchell Show”, a combination of entertainment gossip and political name-calling.
Most popular TV show: Television was still very much in its infancy… the most popular program on TV was “The Original Amateur Hour” on the (then) major DuMont Television Network. It’s worth noting that a show called “Toast Of The Town” first aired over the summer, which would eventually be known as “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Big/recent New York Times headline / news story: This article: WASHINGTON, Aug. 31 — The United States Government, it was revealed today, has undertaken a basic review of its reparations policy in Germany to determine whether it is entirely consistent with the objectives of the European Recovery Program (disturbing the United Kingdom and France).
Timely New Yorker article(s): “A Letter From Paris” about French agriculture after Germany’s defeat and a story about the usage of the term “red herring” and the US House Of Representatives Committee On Un-American Activities.
Timely Harper’s article(s): An analysis of Thomas E. Dewey’s nomination for president by the Republican Party.
A Note About the above NY Times, New Yorker, and Harper’s links: You must be a subscriber and login to each of these publications to see the articles.
Other significant news highlight(s): In China, the Communist CPC party assume a dominant position in the Chinese Civil War (it will take another year to finally end the fighting and fully come into power). The USA and Soviet Union can’t decide how best to handle Korea, and eventually the “temporary” north/south split of the country at the 38th parallel starts to become more permanent. On August 15, 1948 the Republic of Korea (South Korea) is announced, while on September 9, 1948, a communist regime, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), was proclaimed under Kim Il Sung.
Other significant news highlight(s): Babe Ruth dies on August 16, 1948.
Other significant news highlight(s): August 25, 1948: The House Un-American Activities Committee holds its first-ever televised congressional hearing, featuring what has come to be known as “Confrontation Day” between Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss.
Recent architectural achievements: The VC Morris Gift Shop in San Francisco, designed in 1948 by Frank Lloyd Wright. Although the design of the Guggenheim Museum was already finished in 1948, this was the first opportunity to actually build the internal ramp design.
Listening Environment: home
Time: 1:11 AM, Wednesday, May 14th, 2014
Weather: cool, overcast night
Notes: I’ve been working on setting up this project for almost a year. Let’s see how long it actually takes me to do the damn posts, now.
52nd Street Theme
Slow Boat To China
East Of The Sun & West Of The Moon
So… This is a pretty horrible place to start this project. Originally live radio broadcasts, these weren’t meant to be an album or an album session in any way. Also, Symphony Syd introduces songs and conducts interviews, and as it was done live, you don’t get any uninterrupted full songs.
But, what you do get is some smoking bop from the “Metropolitan Bop’ra House” that was meant to be entertaining and immediate. And it sure is.
There’s a Max Roach drum solo in “Koko” that is about as sloppy as it gets. Charlie Parker sounds up front and showy. Everybody gets their turn, but these are the equivalent to the 3:05 power pop songs of 1940′s jazz.
My highlight is Symphony Syd asking Charlie Parker “It more or less puts bop in a more or less commercial sort of a groove, don’t you think?” and Charlie responding “Well, if you want to take it that way. But I mean, bop is just a title; i mean it’s all still music.” You think you invented he idea of accusing somebody a sell-out? You didn’t.
Nothing on this is essential, but to hear some solid versions of “Slow Boat To China” and “Ornithology” and “52nd Street Theme”, as actually performed in front of a live party audience in 1948… well… that’s alright by me. It’s short… just 8 songs and they go by fast. I’ve listened all the way through multiple times just now. This record is so damn inessential, it’s essential. Understand?