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CDs of the Month

Sol Ho'opi'i's album cover.     Our pick for December, 1999 is Sol Ho'opi'i, Master of the Hawaiian Guitar, volume 1, Rounder Records 1024. These recordings, made from 1926 to 1930, are an intriguing combination of traditional Hawaiian music and contemporaneous jazz favorites. Sol Ho'opi'i moved from Hawaii to California in 1919, where he contributed to the Hawaiian craze sweeping the country with his tremendous skill on the ukulele and his groundbreaking techniques on the steel guitar. Steel guitar players ever since have based their styles on the techniques developed by Sol Ho'opi'i.
     This is a good CD for getting acquainted with the unique sounds of the traditional Hawaiian vocal style, with its distinctive falsetto yodeling. Hawaiian instruments and Sol Ho'opi'i's techniques combine well to produce jazz with a resfreshingly different sound. His rendition of Farewell Blues is particularly unusual and fun. If some of these tracks sound familiar, you may have heard something very similar in the cartoon, Betty Boop's Bamboo Isle, which features two of Sol Ho'opi'i's pieces.
     This collection of 16 songs comes with liner notes containing biographical information, but very little information about the recordings themselves.


Lil Hardin Armstrong's album cover.     Our pick for January, 2000 is Lil Hardin Armstrong and Her Swing Orchestra: 1936 - 1940; The Chronological Classics, 564. Lil Hardin is perhaps best known as the second wife of Louis Armstrong, whom she met when they both performed in King Oliver's Creole Jazzband. Lil Hardin was the band's pianist. People are fond of describing her as a mediocre pianist, but we think she deserves better. But where she really shines and deserves far more recognition than she gets is as a vocalist and band leader. That is what you can hear on this CD, which includes 26 superb tracks featuring Lil as leader of her own Swing Orchestra. She is a dynamic, high-energy vocalist somewhat resembling Blanche Calloway, Cab's big sister. She leads a swinging jazz band featuring some excellent musicians, including Chu Berry and Jonah Jones. She does particularly well with dance numbers such as Doin' the Suzy-Q and Lindy Hop, and we especially enjoy her song about the mysterious and ominous Knock-Kneed Sal on the Mourner's Bench.
     Like all CDs produced by Chronological Classics, this one comes with excellent documentation and brief liner notes.

Jim Europe.     Our pick for February's CD is James Reese Europe and the 369th U.S. Infantry "Hell Fighters" Band, featuring Noble Sissle, IAJRC CD 1012. Recorded in 1919, these songs and instrumental pieces give us a fascinating look at some of the earliest jazz ever recorded, by one of the major contributors to early 20th century African-American music. You will plainly hear in this music the sounds of ragtime, military marches, old cakewalks, and Tin Pan Alley, but there is also jazz there. The collection includes several pieces composed by James Europe, Eubie Blake, and Noble Sissle, such as  Jazz Baby, Mirandy, On Patrol in No Man's Land, and All of No Man's Land is Ours. Jazzola, by Kendall, Robinson, and Morese, is in the same spirit. This is some of the most singable music ever composed.

     The instrumentals are beautiful and hauntingly familiar. Many of the tunes are used on old Fleischer and Warner Brothers cartoons, and many are famous melodies such as Saint Louis Blues, Dark Town Strutter's Ball, and Arabian Nights.

      The band leader himself is also a fascinating figure. Before World War I, Jim Europe was active in New York City as an organizer of African-American musicians, working to gain recognition (as well as employment) for the musicians and their music. Eubie Blake described Jim Europe as "the Martin Luther King of our music." During World War I, his regiment saw action in France, where they fought so bravely that they earned the nickname "Hell Fighters." They returned to the United States as heroes. Actual footage of their triumphant march through the streets of New York City in February 1919 can be seen toward the beginning of the film Stormy Weather. (See Video of the Month, below.) It is a great tragedy that Jim Europe was murdered shortly after his return from the war by a deranged band member.

     The CD includes 24 tracks with detailed information about each, as well as superb liner notes by Mark Berresford.



Cover of  the Cab Calloway CD.Our CD for March is Cab Calloway: Volume 1: 1929-1930; Masters of Jazz, MJCD 105, a fine collection of Cab Calloway's earliest recordings, along with the complete recordings of two bands closely associated with him in his early years.
     Cab's first band was a group called the Alabamians. It was with this group that Cab first discovered his talent for band-leading. He commented in his autobiography that he was amazed at how much of a difference he could make in the sound of a band by his method of leadership. However, Cab's relationship with the Alabamians was uneasy; they were too conservative for his tastes. He complained that all they wanted to play was "dipsy-doodle music." The two tracks of the Alabamians on this CD were recorded after Cab had left the band. The band has a very pleasant sound, with fine, eerie harmonies, but it doesn't sound at all like Cab's style.
     Cab next became the leader of the Missourians, who were quickly renamed "Cab Calloway and His Orchestra." This CD includes 14 recordings that the Missourians made before Cab joined the band. They have a beautiful, haunting sound that Cab retained for some time. Some of our favorite jazz instrumentals, such as Ozark Mountain Blues and Prohibition Blues, are included in this group.
     The remaining eight tracks on this CD are Cab Calloway's earliest recordings with the recently renamed Missourians. We think these are some of the finest recordings Cab ever made. Cab is young and experimental, with a high, soaring voice. His wild rendition of St. Louis Blues will send shivers up your spine. The Viper's Drag, an instrumental piece composed by Fats Waller, is unlike anything recorded by Cab ever since.
     The CD includes a booklet with excellent liner notes by Daniel Nevers, in both French and English, with photographs and a detailed discography.


Cover of the CD College Rhythm     Our CD for April is College Rhythm: Hot Dance Band Classics 1927-1934, Memphis Archives MA7021.
      Here are eighteen lively and hilarious songs about college life from the Jazz Age, including three treasures by Harry Reser. One of these is a parody of The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi, called She's the Sweetheart of Six Other Guys!  Harry Reser is a superb musician whose music is hard to find. In addition, you get to hear some very early recordings by Kay Kyser, George Olsen, Ted Weems, Hal Kemp, Gene Kardos, and other fine bands from this era.
     The liner notes point out that these are all white bands, and comment that although African Americans were attending college in ever-growing numbers during this time, they didn't produce any college songs. We know of at least one college song produced by an African American band, and that's Sophomore, recorded by Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy in 1930.
     Listening to these songs reveals that the interests of college students haven't changed much in the past 70 years, although raccoon coats have fallen out of favor, and the guitar has replaced the ukulele as the courtship instrument of choice.


Photo of Blanche Calloway CD.  Our CD of the month for May is Blanche Calloway and Her Joy Boys: 1925 - 1935; Chronological Classics 783. This CD has long been one of our favorites. Blanche was Cab Calloway's big sister. She preceded him into show business and helped him get started. It is a pity that he didn't say more about her in his autobiography. Information about Blanche is hard to find.
 Her dynamic, energetic style shines through in these recordings. The earliest two songs (1925), in which she is accompanied by Louis Armstrong, are fairly standard blues songs. The next songs on the CD were recorded in 1931, and we can hear the change in her style; she has a much jazzier sound. These sides also include the earliest recordings of Ben Webster on the tenor saxophone and Cozy Cole on the drums. These are two of the many fine musicians who got their start in Blanche Calloway's band.
 Blanche's signature tune is Growlin' Dan, a song in which Blanche does a fair bit of growling herself. There is a reference in this song to her brother Cab's song character, Minnie the Moocher.
 The CD includes a good many pieces composed by Blanche herself, and she also performs songs by such notable composers as Clarence Williams, Cole Porter, W.C. Handy, Andy Razaf, Don Redman, and Fats Waller. Many of these songs, like the fine Johnson-Razaf song "Misery," are hard or impossible to find anywhere else. Whether the songs are bluesy or raunchy, her singing packs a punch and is somehow very personal. When we listen to her, we feel her presence, her reach, more than we usually do when listening to the music of this era.
 Vocalist Billy Massey sings the lyrics on one song, Sugar Blues. He has a charming voice, and one can hear more of him, and Blanche, on Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy.
 This CD left us hungry for more recordings by Blanche Calloway, but sadly, very little of her work was preserved.


Photo of Duke Ellington CD.  Our CD of the month for June is Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, 1927-1928; Chronological Classics 542. This CD is the second in a series of the recordings of Duke Ellington in chronological order, released on the Classics label. The recordings made by the Ellington band in the 1927-1928 period are stunning. By this time, the orchestra had achieved its own, distinctive sound quite different from that of most of the other bands around at the time. Duke's compositions are haunting and beautiful, and the band pulls them off with great mastery.
    Duke Ellington was born in Washington, D. C. and organized his first band in high-school. He soon moved to New York, where he became one of the leading artists of the Harlem renaissance. He played piano, led bands and composed, and quickly achieved the status of one of the most highly respected jazz artists in the world.
    This CD features the fine playing of such musicians as Bubber Miley, Otto Hardwick, Sonny Greer, Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton, Louis Metcalf, Jabbo Smith, and Harry Carney, and the strange and fascinating vocals of Adelaide Hall. Here, we hear some of the early examples of Duke Ellington's use of the female vocalist as an instrument. Adelaide's clarinet-like and growling vocals on "Creole Love Call" are haunting and eerie.
    Some of the other particularly fine recordings featured on this CD include "Black and Tan Fantasie," "Chicago Stomp Down," "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo," and "Jubilee Stomp." "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" was the band's theme song and greatest hit for many years, and rightfully so. No matter how many times I listen to this CD, "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" still makes me stop whatever I am doing at the time and just listen.


Photo of Fletcher Henderson CD.  Our CD of the month for October is Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra; Chronological Classics 673. This is the first volume of Fletcher Henderson's recordings from 1924 in the Classics series. The recordings on this CD are playful, innovative, and a real pleasure to listen to. By 1924, Fletcher's band was one of the hottest bands in New York, bolstered by the strong and innovative arranging style of Fletcher's head saxophonist, Don Redman. This CD contains some of the orchestra's finest recordings, including the eerie "Ghost of the Blues," the gorgeous "Driftwood," and a highly humorous arrangement of "Nobody's Sweetheart." But for us, the highlight of this CD is "My Papa Doesn't Two-Time No Time," in which Don Redman sings the first recorded scat (a form of improvised nonsense singing popularized by Louis Armstrong and mastered by Cab Calloway). The first recorded scat is often mistakenly attributed to Louis Armstrong, but Don beat him to it by two years. Also of historic interest on this CD is the piece called "After the Storm," in which Don Redman plays an oboe -- the first and one of the only instances of the use of an oboe in jazz. A young Coleman Hawkins is also featured on this CD.


Photo of Harry Reser's Six Jumping Jacks CD.  Our CD for November is Harry Reser's Six Jumping Jacks, Volume 1, The Old Masters, mb 120. If you love the jaunty music from old Betty Boop cartoons, you will love this collection of novelty songs recorded in the 1920s by banjo virutoso Harry Reser and his band. The songs come complete with sound effects depicting barnyard animals, cars and trains, with appropriately light-hearted lyrics. If you want to read transcriptions of some of the songs on this album, refer to the lyrics page. Probably the best-known song in the collection is "Where Do You Work-a, John?," a song featured in the Betty Boop cartoon, Mask-a-Raid, where it was probably performed by this same group of musicians. The vocal is provided by Tom Stacks, described accurately as having an audible grin by Randy Skretvedt, author of the CD's excellent liner notes. Behind the humor of this music is a superb group of musicians, in particular the band's leader, Harry Reser. Reser is widely recognized as being the greatest banjo player of all time. Like Don Redman, he was a musical prodigy who could play every instrument in the band.
     Old Masters is planning on releasing a second volume of the Six Jumping Jacks. I hope it will be soon!


Photo of Lucille Hegamin CD cover.Our CD pick for December 2000 is Lucille Hegamin: Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order, Volume 3, Document Records, DOCD-5421. This talented vocalist recorded both jazz and blues pieces with style and verve, and was accompanied by a fine group of musicians that sounds like the Henderson band. This collection contains some of the most fun songs to have come out of the 1920's, including Hard-Hearted Hannah (the Vamp of Savannah), Hot Tamale Molly and Here Comes Malinda. The lead song on the CD, Chattanooga Man, is so catchy that you won't want to take it off repeat until you've learned it by heart! The CD also includes well-known pieces such as No Man's Mama, Poor Papa, and Alabamy Bound. Good liner notes by Chris Smith discuss the music and the artist's career.


Photo of Ruth Etting CD cover.Our CD pick for January 2001 is Ruth Etting: Ten Cents a Dance, Living Era, Academy Sound and Vision, Ltd., CD AJA 5008. Ruth Etting personifies the sound of the 1920s female crooner. She had the "tear in her voice" that was so highly prized among sentimental singers of the era, but she could also do lively, swinging numbers quite effectively. This CD has 20 of her recordings, spanning 1926-1930.
    Ruth's sound was almost certainly influenced by the style of contemporary African-American singers, and there are times when she sounds amazingly similar to Cab Calloway's now little-known older sister, Blanche.
     The title song, "Ten Cents a Dance," was composed for Ruth Etting by the great composers, Rogers and Hart. It is a cynical and bitter song about the plight of women in the Depression, and Ruth sings it with great feeling. "But I Do, You Know I Do!" is an extremely catchy number that will get stuck in your head and torment you until you learn the words. "Mean to Me," which ends with a clever play on words, has a beautiful melody that may be familiar to you if you are a fan of Betty Boop Cartoons. She also does a soulful rendition of the famous "Body and Soul" and sings a fine version of the very 1920s "What Wouldn't I Do For That Man!"
      This is a great CD, featuring some of the finest recordings from the era.


Whispering Jack Smith Our CD for February is Whispering Jack Smith, Pearl Flapper, Past CD 7074. Whispering Jack Smith, also known as Jack Smith, the Whispering Baritone, was a proto-crooner who recorded during the 1920s. His quiet style was made possible by the invention of the microphone, although it was said that his "whisper" did have enough carrying power to be heard throughout the room. To modern listeners he sounds very odd and old-fashioned, but with a playful quality that grows on the listener. He sings songs that were old-fashioned even at the time of the recordings, such as "Me and My Shadow," "Blue Skies," and "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin' Along." There are some wonderful old classics on this CD, such as "Cecilia" (sure to get stuck in your head!), "There Ain't No Maybe in My Baby's Eyes," and "Then I'll Be Happy." (The lyrics to these three have been transcribed by us this month; see the lyrics list above.) As a singer, he has more personality and fire than Rudy Vallee, to whom he is sometimes compared. This is a fine sampling of early 20th Century American popular music.



Don Redman: Doin' What I PleaseOur CD pick for this month is Don Redman: Doin' What I Please, Living Era CD AJA 5100. Don Redman, a multi-instrumentalist who could play every instrument in the band, was known as "the Little Genius." He was a daring composer and arranger whose successful combination of arrangement and innovation made big bands possible. He also pioneered the use of reeds in jazz, and was the first person to play the oboe in a jazz piece. This CD features Don's superb instrumental arrangements, including his version of the Whiteman Stomp that was said to be too difficult for the Whiteman band to perform! You can also hear Don's quiet, mischievous vocals on several of the pieces included here. Particlarly of note are his renditions of Shakin' the African and Got the Jitters, as well as his performances of his own compositions, Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You and How'm I Doin'? This CD provides good coverage of a much-neglected artist.


Find lyrics at Heptune's Classical Jazz and Blues Lyrics Page!
Find this month's recommendation at Heptune's Journal of Lore and Levity!


 

Updated 4/10/01.

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