I’ve loved Lester Young and Stan Getz since I was 10 years old. Something about their warm tone and assertive yet flowing time moves me, as I’m sure it does many of you. I’ve spent most of my life wrestling with my horn trying to achieve this fluency, with countless transcriptions and hours upon hours of listening, but in the last five years I’ve made a discovery for myself from an unexpected source…
The missing link that helped me was paying attention to what my idols were listening to when they were growing up, and following the lineage back to get a fully rounded perspective of their experience with music. Imagine growing up in the 1940s and playing your horn around 52nd st in the 50s. Imagine how you would sound if you were gigging every night with the same rhythm sections as your heroes, chatting with them on the breaks about the records they like. Living the same gritty life in New York City. I bet lots of your chats would be about your contemporaries- the 50s were a magical time for jazz after all, but I bet they were also talking about what they listened to growing up.
I moved to New York City six years ago to chase my jazz dream, and since then I’ve been lucky to be able to gig almost every night playing exclusively swing and traditional jazz. Playing music from the 1920’s through the 50’s, I started to realize more and more how the relationship between trad and swing has been ‘instrumental’ in sharpening my sense of time, and reinforcing my sense of harmonic language. I decided it was time to capture my experiences by recording my debut album. “Strike Up The Band” (Outside In Music records) was released a few weeks ago, and is available to stream everywhere, and to purchase on CD and vinyl through my website which is listed below.
Raise your hand if you’ve heard of the swing band the Kansas City Six; a couple of you, great! I’m happy to hear that because in my opinion they have produced some of the most swinging tracks, and because the 30’s were a magical time for swingtime. Take a listen to Lester Young playing clarinet on “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans”. Notice his concerted harmony on the head in with Buck Clayton, and his relaxed beautiful tone and straight-but-somehow-swinging time.
Buck Clayton playing light and tight on the beat really makes you want to move your feet. That relationship between sound and physical movement is such an important aspect of jazz. I dare you to try to play that Buck Clayton solo (as I continue to try) right on the beat with relaxed intensity at mezzo-forte. He uses his feel to excite the listener, not just volume, range, and harmony. Lester’s playing is not as “behind the beat” as I had thought for years. With my tenor setup, I have to take care to overcome my horn’s natural resistance to be able to play on the beat like this. Harry Allen is one of my favorite saxophonists alive today, and he is a great example of this.
Trad jazz comes from New Orleans. Lester Young grew up in New Orleans. Coincidence? Just take a listen to Red Nichols and Miff Mole play “Margie” in 1928, I bet Lester had paid attention to bands like this:
Did that first ensemble break make you howl “wooooo!”? They’re not playing loud or very fast, they’re using the nuance of feel and syncopation. The same concepts that we heard in the Kansas City Six recording of loose but concerted harmony, straight-but-somehow-swinging feel, and overall conceptual similarity to the swing track from 10 years later.
Here one more track from Jelly Roll Morton from 1928 (can you tell it’s one of my favorite years for jazz?). Omer Simeon is playing clarinet, and the playing is so exciting, especially on the ensemble out right around 2:22. The little skips in the clarinet part really catapult the band forward. This is a good example of a band where everyone is playing in the rhythm section, and they are all agreeing.
Now, a lot of you are probably saying “Yeah yeah, Ricky, we learned all about this stuff in school it’s old news”. To you folks, I submit obscure saxophonist Bobby Davis of the California Ramblers/Goofus Five. He makes this opening chorus (after the verse) sound easy, but if you try it you’ll quickly realize it’s not. The heavy dotted eighth note feel is reminiscent of Don Murray of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in the early 20s, and he plays some very fast clean fills and enormous leaps while using the entire range of the horn. Forgive the vocal chorus if it’s not your style.
And finally, I bet that there are also some of you who are turned off by this whole article, and that’s ok. During grad school, one of my professors came in to my practice room and just said “you like this cheesy shit?”. So, fine, it’s not for everyone and I understand that. To those folks who are still here, I’ll leave you with what I think ought to be the most tolerable for you. Here are two very different sides of Bix Biederbecke, one playing his original piano composition, and one with Frankie Trumbauer and his orchestra playing one of the more badass tunes of the 20s.
“In A Mist”
In my opinion, the all-time master of evoking physical tension and release in a listener with his sound was Louis Armstrong. He can make you hop and skip around, he can make you hold your breath, and he can make you feel like an enormous truck just passed right in front of you at 100 miles an hour. He adds the range, technique, and harmony to this concept of nuanced and precise time-feel. He kept all of this through the transition from trad to swing in roughly 1930, and his timelessness and continuous relevance until he died is great evidence for the importance of this nuanced concept of rhythm.