WBGO Blog
  • You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter: George Shearing

    December 1, 2012. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    This blog, on the bebop playing of pianist George Shearing, is the latest in our regular series of blogs, "You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter." To read previous installments, click on the links below.

    George_Shearing_1959

    Series Introduction

    Episode 1: A Blues Recording From the Congo -- In 1906!

    Episode 2: The Origins of the Word "Jazz"

    Episodes 3-5: Myths About Jazz -- Part One, Part Two, Part Three

    Episode Six: Putting Louis Armstrong in Context: Part One, Part Two

    Episode Seven: Myths About Early Jazz Drumming

    Episode Eight: Jazz On Film

    Episode Nine: Slap-Tonguing

    Episode Ten: The Legacy of Chick Webb

    Episode Eleven: Drummer Gene Krupa

    Episode Twelve: Bassist Walter Page

    (PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)

    George Shearing: The Price of Success

    Pianist George Shearing is another great jazz musician who is widely misunderstood – in part, because of his success.

    That’s "Conception," a Bebop tune Shearing wrote and recorded in 1949.  Shearing had a unique approach to bebop composition, and this tune was recorded by many well-known musicians. We'll talk more about Shearing’s short - and largely forgotten - bop career in this blog.

    Blind from his birth to a poor family in London in 1919, Shearing showed talent on the piano from around age three. He was classically trained, and developed a strong interest in jazz after hearing recordings by Art Tatum and Fats Waller.

    At 16, Shearing left school to play in a London pub. By eighteen he was recording in a kind of Art Tatum-Teddy Wilson style, and quickly gained fame in the U.K., and even had  his own BBC radio show.

    An early advocate for Shearing’s talents was Leonard Feather, who is best known today for his music journalism. Many people forget that the British-born Feather was also a composer and a very capable pianist.  Here’s “Squeezin’ the Blues,” a novelty piece he recorded on piano – with Shearing on accordion – in 1939:

    Feather moved to the United States later that year,  and became one of the first writers to pay serious attention to the nascent Bebop movement. His 1949 book, Inside Be-Bop, was the first book on the new music, and was innovative in that it included musical analysis with notation, and brief bios of notable bop musicians.

    With Feather’s encouragement, Shearing moved to New York in 1947, and he soon found himself engrossed in bebop, and started and started composing bop pieces in his own distinctive style.

    Here’s “How’s Trix,” which he recorded in April of 1950:

    And yet another, "Good To The Last Bop," from February of 1949, on which Shearing plays accordion again, as well as the piano solo (vibraphonist Marjorie Hyams plays the piano chords behind his accordion):

    All of these tunes demonstrate Shearing’s deep grasp of bebop.  Listen not only to the sheer number of notes, but also to their unpredictability.

    For musicians, notice the unexpected turns in the chord progressions, and departures from standard form. "Conception," for instance, has A sections that are twelve bars each, not the more common eight.

    And "Good to the Last Bop" has a form of 16 bars, then 8 bar bridge, then 16 bars again, and measures 9-12 of each 16 bar section feature chords descending by thirds (hear ast 0:07-09, and 2:05-6), very rare in this time period!

    "Conception" quickly became popular with bebop improvisers, as it’s a challenging piece that moves quickly through a number of keys. It’s also interesting because it starts off like it’s in the middle of something, and has a lot of momentum.

    But "Conception" isn’t the tune Shearing is best known for. In fact, some doubt whether he wrote it at all.

    I've been reading Peter Pullman's excellent and thoroughly researched biography of Bud Powell, who is one of my "piano gods." In a footnote, Peter reports that some musicians who knew both Powell and Shearing, among them pianist Claude Williamson and bassist Al McKibbon, believed Shearing was not capable of writing "Conception," and suggest Powell was a more likely author for the tune.

    These are misunderstandings which need to be laid to rest.

    What happened? First of all, Shearing’s interest in bebop was eclipsed by his success playing in a different style. His light-hearted, medium-tempo ballad “September in the Rain,” recorded in 1949 at the same session as "Good to the Last Bop," became a pop mega-hit which sold nearly a million copies, even
    though he plays a perfectly fine jazz solo on it, as you can hear:

    And his best-known composition, “Lullaby of Birdland” from 1952, may celebrate Charlie Parker and nightclubs where bebop was played, but it’s really a light swinger, not a bebop tune.

    On the heels of this success, Shearing became very active in the Latin jazz movement, especially from 1953 onwards, when Cal Tjader, Armando Peraza and others were regular members of his group. (More on this another time.) Innovative vibraphonist Gary Burton was even a member of Shearing's quintet in 1963 and 1964.

    But from the late 1960s onward - a long stretch of time - Shearing became identified with a kind of "jazz lite"- very popular, but not respected by hard-core fans and musicians. He also accompanied singers like Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole and Mel Tormé, and did many gigs in hotels as opposed to jazz clubs, which is a different kind of career. So in a sense, he took himself out of the mainstream of jazz performers.

    George_Shearing_Plays

    The long and short of it is that many jazz performers developed the impression that he was a kind of cocktail pianist, and either forgot or never knew that he started as quite a hardcore jazz player.

    As for "Conception," it became closely associated with Miles Davis. The trumpeter recorded it several times, and he created his own version of it for the Birth of the Cool sessions he led in 1949 and 1950, which he called "Deception."

    Miles’s version adds several twists, or, one might say, "deceptions": First of all, he uses his own theme, not Shearing's, but it is written to fit Shearing's chord sequence.

    Second, Miles's tune has two extra bars in each A section. And finally, Miles starts with an eight-bar introduction, which is really the last eight bars of the theme, but since one doesn't know that on first listen, it's impossible to follow the form until one's heard it a few times. The theme really begins at the 9 second mark.

    But “Deception’s” debt to Shearing’s earlier composition is evident. If there’s any doubt of that, note that the first surviving recording of Miles playing it, in a radio broadcast with Stan Getz, J.J. Johnson, and Art Blakey, in February of 1950, a month before the studio version was recorded:

    On this version, they play Shearing's theme at the beginning, and Miles's "Deception" at the end! In fact Miles used this same arrangement again when he recorded "Conception" in the studio for Prestige in 1951.

    As for Powell,  his first surviving version of "Conception" is from 1953, at a club date in Washington, DC (although this wasn’t released until 1982). He then recorded it for Verve Records in 1955:

    Don’t get me wrong – Bud was a genius, but this tune – with its tricky head and modulations - is not what Bud was about as a player. In fact, there is no Bud Powell piece that sounds anything like "Conception." Shearing's compositional style does have elements in common with Lennie Tristano's, but still sounds distinct.

    And in any case, Shearing published sheet music for "Conception" in 1950!

    So why would it make sense to questions Shearing's authorship in the
    and to say that Bud Powell wrote the piece, when Bud wasn't associated with the piece and didn’t record it until years after Shearing? To me, it’s a bit baffling.

    And why don’t we pay proper tribute to George Shearing? To my mind, it’s a case of what can happen in jazz - that when somebody becomes very popular, people start tearing him or her down.

    Shearing had the double problem that he didn’t continue to play this kind of material. Or I should say he rarely did – if you look, you’ll see that once in a while in his later recordings he’ll play one of these wild bop pieces in the middle of a set. But he wasn’t primarily associated with this kind of material, or with hardcore jazz gigs, after the late sixties.

    So a kind of resentment developed because he was so hugely popular. But guess what? He was also hugely talented; give the man his due.

    George Shearing, in memoriam: he passed away at about 91 ½ years old in 2011.

    See you on the next blog!

    Lewis

  • You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter: Walter Page

    October 27, 2012. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    This blog, on bassist Walter Page, is the latest in our regular series of blogs, "You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter." To read previous installments, click on the links below.

    pagehorizontal1

    Series Introduction

    Episode 1: A Blues Recording From the Congo -- In 1906!

    Episode 2: The Origins of the Word "Jazz"

    Episodes 3-5: Myths About Jazz -- Part One, Part Two, Part Three

    Episode Six: Putting Louis Armstrong in Context: Part One, Part Two

    Episode Seven: Myths About Early Jazz Drumming

    Episode Eight: Jazz On Film

    Episode Nine: Slap-Tonguing

    Episode Ten: The Legacy of Chick Webb

    Episode Eleven: Drummer Gene Krupa

    (PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)

    Walter Page: Listen to the Bass, Already!

    Of all the musicians in a jazz band, the one who gets the least “props” is the bass player. Most people just don’t listen to what they play!

    And the things they say about bass players are so superficial, either they haven't listened to them at all, or what they say is based on just a minute or two of listening to a single recording. Therefore, this is the first of several occasional blogs where I will focus on bassists.

    A case in point is Walter Page, who lived from 1900 to 1957. Page played bass (and tuba) in early Kansas City swing bands. He led his own Blue Devils in the late twenties, then joined one led by Bennie Moten, which had William “Count” Basie on piano for its last recordings in 1932. Page then anchored the rhythm sections of Basie’s own bands, with one break, through 1948, and it is for this work that he is most celebrated.

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    Page with Basie's band circa 1942: with singer Jimmy Rushing, Jo Jones on drums, Freddie Green on guitar, and Don Byas on tenor saxophone

    What do folks say about Walter Page? Not a lot. You can Google all over the place, and look at all your jazz books, and either they say nothing, or they say something vague like “He really swung,” which is just a way of saying, "I don't KNOW how Page sounds, because I've never really paid attention."

    Many people think they’ve got Page covered when they say he played “four beats to the bar,” which means one note on every pulse of a four-beat measure.

    But this is basically meaningless - because that's what bass players are  supposed to do. So that can't be all there is to it. You don’t get famous because you play four beats to a bar. That would be considered adequate, but never great.

    Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Walter Page:

    "More than any other jazz bass player in history, Page is credited with developing and popularizing the “walking bass” style of playing on all four beats, a transition from the older, two-beat style."

    Ok, so I guess this is what people mean when they say Page plays “four beats to the bar.”  It’s true, he did play a role in the transition from the older, "two beat" or "oom-pah" style, but my listening tells me that that there was a general and nationwide trend around 1930 towards playing walking bass, so I would *never* want to say Page or any other single person was the first to do it.

    Let’s listen to part of one of Page’s very first recordings, “Squabblin’,” recorded in Kansas City by the Blue Devils in November of 1929.

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    Page's playing here is quite varied--he starts with a two-beat style behind saxophonist Buster Smith, who was later a mentor to Charlie Parker, though Parker didn't play like him).

    The next section features the rhythm section, and Page plays melodic rhythms taken from the tune's written theme, played previously, and he even takes a solo break. There is a passage later where he does play on all four beats, mostly with repeated notes, but it's not his primary style at this time.

    Page didn’t record again until December of 1932, with Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra. Here’s a track from that session, “Lafayette.”

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    At the very beginning, you hear kind of an unusual sound coming out of the bass department, before he moves to four-four behind Ben Webster's sax solo. What is it?

    Page is playing what today's bassists call “slap bass,” where you alternate between slapping and aggressively plucking the strings. Listeners today may associate this sound with the electric bass, but the technique has been around for years.

    Now let’s listen to the end of the most famous Benny Moten recording of all time, “Moten Swing,” from that same 1932 session. Pay close attention to what you hear.

    This track is on the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, a boxed set was first issued in 1973 and eventually sold over two million copies, and is now in almost every music library in the U.S. and around the world. But nobody seems to have ever noticed that at the very end - and I do mean the very end, while the band is playing - Walter Page is slapping the bass. You might think it’s percussion at first, but it’s definitely Page.

    So one thing we can note about Page, although no one ever mentions it, is that he was an early proponent of the slap bass style.

    The_Smithsonian_Collection_of_Classic_Jazz

    Now let's listen to another track from the Smithsonian Collection, “He’s Funny That Way.” This is a recording that Billie Holiday made with Page, saxophonist Lester Young and others in November of 1937.

    What Walter Page plays here is so beautiful, that when you do start listening to the bass line, after a few seconds you won’t be able to take your ears off of it!

    On each of these tracks, Walter Page leaves the standard four-four pattern behind and does something that surprises the listener. On  “He's Funny That Way,” he leaves space – lots of spaces, and plays beautiful melodies; it just sounds great.

    Let's listen to another small-group session, “Live And Love Tonight,” led by Basie himself in February of 1939.

    This is interesting because it’s one of the few sessions where Basie plays organ, and it’s also as close as Page ever got to playing a solo during all of his years with Basie  - even though you have to listen very closely, because he’s playing behind the organ.

    basiepage1

    Guess what? Page plays double-time. I can’t think of another bass player in the ‘30s playing double-time. For that matter, I can't think of one in the ‘20s, or the '40s, either.

    So it may not leap out at you, because Page is playing mostly scale notes, but it's pretty unusual, and another example of Page breaking up the pattern of four notes to the bar.

    There are plenty of other recordings from this period where Walter Page plays great and creative stuff, such as “Farewell Blues,” “I Left My Baby” and “Swinging at the Daisy Chain.”

    One very interesting track is “Oh Lady Be Good,” from the “Spirituals To Swing” concert organized by John Hammond at Carnegie Hall in December 1939. Walter Page takes a real solo on this one, as do Charlie Christian and Lester Young, and it's kind of interesting and wild to hear what he does.

    NYTimes-23dec39

    Page purposely starts to hang back and play slower than the pulse of the band, to the point where it really starts to feel like he's going to drag everybody down with him!

    But Page knows he won't, because you have the drummer and the piano player, and everybody to hold it together. So what you have is a very clever, very offbeat kind of a bass solo.

    So, by the time you’re actually done listening to Walter Page, you realize he was a very creative and very melodic bass player. And what's most interesting about him is that in fact he's not riveted to the idea of playing four quarter notes in every bar. That's not what's so special about him.

    On the contrary. What you hear when you actually listen to Walter Page is that he breaks up that pattern of four beats to the bar whenever he thinks of something more interesting, interactive, or melodic to do.

    That's why he's famous, and that's why we love Walter Page.

  • You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter: Gene Krupa

    September 14, 2012. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    This blog, on swing drummer Gene Krupa, is the latest in our regular series of blogs, "You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter." To read previous installments, click on the links below.

    gene-krupa-slider1a

    Series Introduction

    Episode 1: A Blues Recording From the Congo -- In 1906!

    Episode 2: The Origins of the Word "Jazz"

    Episodes 3-5: Myths About Jazz -- Part One, Part Two, Part Three

    Episode Six: Putting Louis Armstrong in Context: Part One, Part Two

    Episode Seven: Myths About Early Jazz Drumming

    Episode Eight: Jazz On Film

    Episode Nine: Slap-Tonguing

    Episode Ten: The Legacy of Chick Webb

    (PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)

    Jazz Drumming: The Much-Maligned Gene Krupa

    Gene Krupa has to be one of the most misunderstood, and insulted, musicians in jazz history.

    It’s a typical thing, which happens all too often in jazz. If you become popular, critics and musicians can turn against you. It seems this is due in part to jealousy amongst peers who aren't as popular, and partly to a kind of elitist belief that if so many people like your music, you must be playing simple and compromising fluff.

    So let’s take a closer look at – and closer listen to – Gene Krupa.

    Somehow it has become part of received wisdom that Krupa wasn’t a good drummer, and that he played too loud. Neither of these things is true. If we actually listen, we can hear he was a creative and interactive player.

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    Krupa defined drumming for many Swing Era listeners, because of the unprecedented popularity he enjoyed in groups led by clarinetist Benny Goodman. His tom-tom introduction to Goodman’s 1937 hit “Sing, Sing, Sing” made him a household name, and a star in his own right.

    Krupa became so popular that he was the only drummer many Swing Era white fans knew. This led to some resentment among his peers, especially African-Americans, even though he loved drummers like Baby Dodds and Chick Webb, and always said so.

    But somewhere along the line, a few critics started the idea that Krupa played too loud, and that’s all he did. Sometimes Jo Jones, the drummer in Count Basie’s band, fed this perception by saying things like, “All he ever did was that tom-tom beat," meaning the “Sing, Sing Sing” riff that made Krupa famous.

    So what started out as an opinion - that Gene Krupa played too loud, and that’s all he did - came to be considered a fact. But it’s wrong. This always seems to happen with critics, for some reason. But never mind. I’m going to give you some examples to set the record straight.

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    We need look no further than a live version of “Sing, Sing Sing,” which Krupa recorded with Goodman at his famous Carnegie Hall concert in January of 1938.

    The first thing you notice is the energy Gene Krupa brings to this band. I’m telling you, without Krupa, the Benny Goodman group would have been a very clean, very tight, and not very exciting organization - but he lifts them right off the ground.

    Notice, too, how much variety Krupa plays in his opening riff - so it’s obviously unfair to say, as Jo Jones did, he does the same thing every time.

    Perhaps the best example of how Krupa lifts a band is the opening number from the Carnegie Hall concert, “Don’t Be That Way.”

    Goodman’s band – and Goodman himself - got off to a very stiff start, and the audience was unmoved. Then Krupa started dropping “bombs” – bass drum accents – and played a two-bar break which lasted only three seconds, but drove the audience wild. You can hear for yourself how they, and the other musicians, respond to Krupa’s drumming.

    Krupa did like to play his bass drum and tom-toms, especially with a big band. But he could also play with a lighter touch, as he did at the same concert on “China Boy,” which he played with wire brushes. Listen to his unusual accenting as he drives the quartet - fascinating - it's never just 1, 2, 3, 4.

    And when he solos, he's also very inventive:

    It’s not true, as Krupa sometimes claimed, that he was the first to use a bass drum in a recording studio, in a 1927 session with guitarist Eddie Condon and pianist Jimmy McPartland.

    What happened was that this was the first session with a bass drum that Krupa and his friends knew of, so that’s what they said. But as we discussed in a previous blog, we can find plenty of early jazz drummers playing a bass drum, all the way back to the first recordings by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917.

    Krupa is also very interactive - certainly one of the most interactive drummers of his generation. There were very few drummers in the mid-thirties who, if you were to play “boo da, ba da,” on your clarinet, would play “a dee ka, ka koo!” behind you, as Krupa did, because they’re listening to everything you do.

    A good place to hear Krupa’s ability to interact with others is in small groups. One example of this is “Barrelhouse,” which he recorded in a trio session with pianist Jess Stacy and bass player Israel Crosby, who later worked with Ahmad Jamal, in November of 1935.

    As we can hear, Krupa, Stacy and Crosby are totally going back and forth and interacting - it’s a marvelous and timeless example of jazz playing. This kind of interaction is what you’d expect from drummers today, but it’s certainly not typical in the 1930s.

    Right into the 1960s, in small group settings Krupa is not loud at all, he’s very swinging, very interactive, and he lifts any group he plays with right up. Here’s, “Seven Come Eleven” from a 1963 stereo session he recorded with the reunited Benny Goodman quartet with Lionel Hampton on vibes and Teddy Wilson on piano.

    So as far as I’m concerned, Gene Krupa was a marvelous drummer who got a bad rap just because he was more popular than some critics and musicians thought he should have been. It was the kind of thing where he was the only drummer a lot of people knew, and people resent that. You know, if you only know one drummer, people will say, “Hey, what about all these other drummers?”

    And as far as being loud, excuse me, but have you ever heard Art Blakey, Max Roach or Elvin Jones? Some of the best drummers in jazz play loud!

    So just forget all of that and listen - you’ll hear some great stuff.