Bright Young Things: The
New Orleans is often claimed to be jazzs birthplace. While
that point may be arguable to some, it was definitely, if not the birthplace,
then the all important incubator. Being an active seaport and a multi cultural
way station, it was the perfect place for an art form that would incorporate so
many diverse elements. Initial jazz bands were largely an entertainment
phenomenon. Typified by the brass bands such as could be found playing dances,
bars and other colorful places in the Storyville area of New Orleans. The
structure of this early music was very simple, a specific rhythm was set up and
people would shake their thing on the dance floor or march down the streets in
a funeral procession. Slowly, soloists and their distinctive voices started
creeping into the music, playing a more prominent part and serving as catalyst
for the arrangements to reach for more complexity.
Kid Ory (1886-1973) and Joe King Oliver
(1885-1939) were among the first star soloists, hot on their heels was Louis
Armstrong (1901-1971) and Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931). Their innovations
brought jazz closer to the art form as we today know it. The tempos and rhythms
still strongly emphasized dancing, but now too there were the beginnings of
more formalized arrangements for the band.
Like the music itself, several things went into creating
The Jazz Age which was to last, roughly a decade, providing a
soundtrack for the 1920s. At this time Chicago began to attract many
southern state African Americans, musicians among them, with the promises of
work. All the initial progenitors of jazz soon found themselves in Chicago
serving residency at its various clubs. Earl Hines, Sidney Bechet and Jelly
Roll Morton all found themselves working this city. They started to gain a
wider recognition through records they were now able to cut, bringing jazz to
the national consciousness.
The First World War had ended there was a collective sense
of relief and the need to celebrate. Almost mirroring aspects of the Italian
Futurists movement, anything which was mechanical was modern, which became a
byword for good. The entire country seemed caffeinated and the rhythms of this
hot jazz gave cause to create kinetic sculptures on the dance floor. Just as
instrumental soloists had crept into jazz, further evolving it, so now too did
vocalists. For such early singers as Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters and Ma Rainey,
there were innuendos, slang and amusing anecdotes for people to keep up on if
they wanted to be hip. The number of musicians in an ensemble now also
increased. Pop music was the dance music, almost every song seemed to have a
dance for it, the Charleston, The Lindy Hop (created in the Savoy ballroom and
named after Charles Lindbergh who was first to cross the Atlantic Ocean, solo
flight) the fox trot, et al. Not everyone in the country had places they could
go to check out the latest dances. Records began being made with increased
frequency and radio shows broadcasting from the various ballrooms also got
their start around this time. Coatrooms at all the clubs now had corset
checks too, so the bob haired flappers could dance unencumbered. Everyone was
geared up to attend a big party that was far too good to last. With the
brilliance of a shooting star, it was over, gone. The era had gotten its Jazz
Age moniker from the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald whose roman a clefs and
own biography perhaps paint one of the most memorable pictures of the age.
The Jazz age gave way to the big band era. Not all the
artistic greats imploded or used up all of their cache of social/artistic
relevance. People like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway along
with many others who had just been getting their starts during the jazz age
would go on to flourish in the coming decades, contributing greatly to the jazz
cannon. The big band era saw a further complexity of arrangements and
technological advances in both records and radio broadcasting.
While the big band era was going there were other genres,
tributaries which flowed from the same wellspring. Stride piano, a usually
rapidly played solo piano piece which was made up of equal parts blues and
classical components mixed together with improvisation, jazzs lifeblood.
Another genre which came up at the end of the jazz age and was inspired by big
band was Country Swing.
Country swing was best exemplified by Bob Wills and His
Texas Playboys. Inspired by what he had heard on the radio, Bob Wills
(1905-1975) cut his first seminal recordings in 1935. Within these twenty four
tracks, done in a homemade studio in Dallas were stylistic elements which would
serve as, if not always obvious, key components to the more progressive
elements of this big band sub genre.
Country Swing, like the musical genres of blues and country
was not, in its nascence as rigid in its performance or compositional elements
as it was later to become. Bob Wills would, like Duke Ellington, gather top
notch musicians around him to both record and perform with in live situations.
Where as the big band music which Bob Wills admired from the radio incorporated
both the blues and the already diverse cultural elements from the
southern practitioners, Bob Wills added western influences such as fiddle music
and components from south of the border. There was to be found also a European
feel not dissimilar to what people like Django Reinhardt (1910-1953) and his
Quintette duo hot Club de France were doing over in Paris. In both cases it was
one of the occasional and rare occurrences in music when popular culture and
art seem to perfectly align, the artists achieving stardom on an international
Aside from mixing the different regional influences
which included horns, fiddle and lap steel, Bob Wills music also
incorporated vocalists. This cemented their popularity and also made them more
accessible to the more casual, non-dancing listener. From his initial
recognition when he and his group were known as the Aladdin Laddies
(Aladdin Lamp Co was their sponsor) until well after he had received many
accolades, Bob Wills always referred to his music as Western Dance
Music not Country Swing.
As much as I often refer to genre names, it is easy to get
too bogged down in labels. This emphasis on genre can hinder or prevent ones
enjoyment and exploration of all the music which is out there to discover.
I recently had the pleasure of discovering the music of a
sextet out of Portland, Oregon called The Midnight Serenaders. Are they hot
jazz or country swing? It does not matter, they incorporate many early jazz
elements. Their album Magnolia is a pleasure to listen to. It manages to be
both fun and art.
When the cocktail/swing revival of the late 1990s came
about there were many retro/novelty bands popping up in every major city,
running the full gambit from swing to cocktail to hot jazz. Now these bands are
mostly all gone, having briefly had their moment in the sun. Those that remain
or whom are newly minted now do it for an affection for the music. The Midnight
Serenaders manage to transcend being merely kitsch/retro, all the music
capturing with emotional authenticity, the stylings of the early years of jazz.
All the band members are fully committed to the music and
this translates into an authenticity which while managing to offer a sonic
glimpse of jazzs early years, is never a thing coldly trapped under
museum glass. The execution is so well done that it avoids completely the risk
of the Serenaders being merely a nostalgia act. Never once on the album do you
get the feeling that you are listening to musicians doing a side project which
allows them to play in a style outside their day-job métier to break up
In their promotional material and musical execution
The Midnight Serenaders avoid pigeon holing themselves by strictly aligning
themselves too specifically with one particular musical school, incorporating
aspects of hot, swing and other early musical components. It is all seamlessly
The songs on Magnolia are covers which run the full gambit
of early jazz oeuvre, from A Porters Love Song to a
Chambermaid (James P. Johnson) to a saucy My Handyman (Eubie
Blake). The vocal chores are shared by Dee Settlemier who doubles on ukulele
and Doug Sammons who also plays guitar. Dees singing throughout is strong
and you never get the suspicion that studio wizardry is involved with any
aspect of her performance. She is one part Louise Brooks mixed with one part
Anita ODay for the perfect vocalist cocktail. Dougs vocals too are
good, he sounds completely at home with the music never once stumbling or
having to ever resort to the sort of talk/singing some do when out
of their depth. On the songs where they sing together the contrasts are made
interesting and work because they can both actually sing and their sense of fun
and knowledge of the music clearly comes through on every song.
I Must Have That Man largely associated with
Billie Holiday, here is given a new spin, surely the way one should approach
any song already owned by a great. The Serenaders version is
melancholy, but unlike Lady Days, the romantic yearning is a temporary,
minor setback. Here, one gets the feeling that the songs protagonist
will eventually get her man.
David Evans doubles up throughout the album on clarinet and
saxophone. He gets a rich, laconic feel during some of his solos on saxophone
such as can be found on My Handyman. His clarinet playing is as
equally satisfying letting out a low purr during some of the quieter moments on
the album or playfully bubbling elsewhere.
Garner Pruitt on trumpet manages to encompass a compelling
and varied technique throughout. He sometimes plays with mute other times does
a trebled brass bumblebee shaking with mirth. It is nice too to hear someone
play on a mute in a way other than how Miles Davis approached it.
The song Sand has some nice soloing on Hawaiian steel guitar
by Henry Bogdan. The entire band plays but towards the end there is a sort of
duet between clarinet and the Hawaiian steel which can easily set one to day
dreaming. Hawaiian steel/lap steel is not that old of an instrument. I am
surprised that it is not encountered more often in jazz. Much like vibraphones,
part of the instruments power is in its ability to rapidly shift from helping
to provide a sort of sonic ambient background support to one of lead solo
voice. When soloing it can easily shift emotional gears, allowing for more
varied expressions in its musical statement.
The bass played by Pete Lampe is tasteful and a perfect fit.
There are no overly fancy solos of a style not congruent with the rest of the
music. There is no drummer in the band, instead the various stringed
instruments mixing with what Pete is doing shades of Django Reinhardt and his
Quintette duo hot Club de France.
A lot of the lyrics tell stories and are fun to listen to,
Tin Pan Alleys wry humor now being largely forgotten by modern lyricists.
Lyrically too, the innuendos are clever and often fun sexy but all delivered
without over doing it. The vocal stylings and the way the music meshes
with it make it so this album stands up to repeated listening. There are no
weak links in the band and you never get the feeling you are listening to a
singers album where a few token solos are thrown to the band.
The sound throughout is pristine. All the instruments and
their layering can be heard even in a car with lackluster stereo. There
are no liner notes, but the CD pamphlet is styled to look like an old magazine
music ad. Throughout the album, the music is fun and all the band members
personalities clearly come through. There is never any sense of gimmick or
stale nostalgia. These are good musicians who have decided on a slightly
different path. Expand your palette, have a drink and take a turn out on the
dance floor with the Serenaders.
Midnight Serenaders - Magnolia
Doug Sammons - guitar & vocals
Henry Bogdan - Hawaiian steel guitar
Dee Settlemier - ukulele & vocals
Pete Lampe- upright bass
Garner Pruitt - trumpet
Davis Evans - clarinet & saxophone
For more information
-Maxwell Chandler will return with more adventures in