Feature: Giants of Jazz Back to Features page
Begin with the Blues
Although we've had blues recordings in our World music section for a while now, the blues music in this week's Discovery Concert are in a different vein. These are smoother, more urban takes on the blues, from Louis Armstrong's New Orleans take on Black and Blue to Nina Simone (pictured) and her unique combination of educated virtuosity and sensuality.
Nina Simone wouldn't feel at all out of place on this website; originally inspired to play piano by the music of J.S. Bach, she was determined to make the most of her conservatoire education, incorporating fugues into jazz standards in the most natural way one might imagine. Here we hear her sing in a more earthy manner; I Want a Little Sugar in my Bowl is typical of her forthright nature as an independent modern woman.
Billie Holiday's rough upbringing gave her more right to sing blues than most; Strange Fruit, featured here, is among the most downbeat of all her downbeat songs. And with good reason; a moving reflection of the racial tensions of the time it is immensely moving without being overwrought.
Also featured in this first section of the concert are jazz legends Bessie Smith, a vaudeville legend who brought brass and a sense of show to the blues, and Sarah Vaughan, whose smooth, sultry tones made her problems a seductive pleasure to listen to.
Bebop and Beyond
Bebop, the taut and often frantic music which for many exemplifies the more intense side of jazz, was a confluence of many like-minded individuals. But if any one man can be said to have had a hand in its birth, it is alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. Raised in Missouri, Parker bored of predictable jazz chord progressions. Relocating to New York allowed Parker and his fellow musicians to explore faster, more complex frames for improvisation; hence the title of Parker's first piece in this concert, Scrapple from the Apple.
From 1945 Parker worked with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who would later go on to fuse be-bop with Latin American music and spawn a whole panoply of new jazz genres. He also worked with Miles Davis, heard here with Parker on Ornithology (the name of the track a reference to Parker's nickname, "Bird"). A relentless innovator, Davis reined in the excesses of bebop and channeled its energy into myriad new directions, eventually meeting with rock in the 60's.
In turn, Davis gave John Coltrane his first big break. Another musician determined not to stand in the shadow of bop, Coltrane first took its complexity to the limit, then reined in the hectic backing to give himself room to explore the full range of sound that a saxophone could create. A victorious struggle against drink and drugs helped many to see the origins of the powerful emotional core in his music.
Louis and Ella
One of the great jazz partnerships of all time, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were alike in many ways; entertainers with staggering virtuosity who defined the music of their youths but were never constrained by it. Both were possessed of warm, welcoming voices; listeners feel sympathy for their sorrows and share in the carnival atmosphere of their more exuberant moments. Louis even brings warmth to the vicious satire of Weill in his version of Mack the Knife, perhaps even making us feel some affection for the eponymous killer!
Armstrong's virtuosity on the trumpet was balanced by Ella's remarkable scat ability. Louis was no stranger to this improvised jazz singing - his own examples are among the earliest recorded. Their comfort in improvisation spills over into their duets, with fond and genuine ad-libs sounding between the two.
Louis and Ella began recording together in New York in 1946; both were already superstars - Ella for her swing and ballads, Louis for his hot New Orleans ensemble work, exemplified by this playlist's When the Saints Come Marching In. Their music-making was not frequent and had to be fit around their international careers. It culminated in 1957 with their disc of excerpts from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.