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

    August 31, 2012. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    This blog, on swing drummer Chick Webb, 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.

    webbbig1

    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

    (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: Chick Webb’s Legacy

    Let’s talk about Chick Webb. Webb is one of the all-time legendary jazz drummers, who is always praised by contemporaries, like Gene Krupa and Sid Catlett, as well as younger drummers, like Max Roach, Buddy Rich and Art Blakey.

    We know Webb had a huge impact, especially on those who saw him perform live. Everyone says, “Chick Webb, he’s amazing, so exciting, he was so dynamic.”

    And he was.

    But too many accounts of Webb, even eyewitness ones, describe his playing only in vague terms, like “spectacular” or “powerful,” which are not very helpful to us as listeners today.

    And what these accounts don’t tell you about Chick Webb is that on most of his records, you simply can’t hear him. You cannot hear the drums! Maybe you hear the brushes, but he doesn’t do anything fancy with them on most of those recordings.

    Even on one of his most famous recordings, “Stompin at the Savoy,” recorded in May of 1934, all you can hear throughout is brushes on the quarter notes with no accents or audible fills:

    We can hear a lot more of Webb on a live version he recorded of the same song in January of 1939 with his “Little Chicks,” a smaller group from his main band. This clip is also interesting in that it features Wayman Carver on flute, an instrument which is rare in jazz until the 1950s.

    What I’d like to point out here is that most people talk about Chick Webb without actually having any listening they can point to and say, “There’s an example.” So what I’d like to do is offer some specific observations about Chick’s playing, and examples you can listen to and hear how great he actually is.

    Let’s listen to a clip from “Undecided,” which he recorded with Ella Fitzgerald in February of 1939. One thing you’ll notice is that Webb’s playing is, indeed, very dramatic, very bold.

    One thing Webb likes to do is set up the rhythmic attacks in the band. So, as in this example, when the horns pause during the melody, he fills in that space: “ba doom, bam!”

    Setting up rhythms in this way is now an important part of every jazz drummer’s toolkit, and I don't know that anyone was doing this before Chick. I certainly do know that it’s something he was well known for.

    The reason I want to bring this up is that usually nobody tells you what Webb was known for specifically, they just say, “Oh, he was great, he was dynamic.”

    All of that is fine, but let’s be specific! How was he dramatic? In the way he set up his band by filling in those breaks.

    loren-dennis-chick-webb-and-ella-fitzgerald-at-the-savoy-ballroom-new-york-city-1935

    The other thing that you’ll notice in this clip is that by today’s standards, Chick was not a technical wizard. After his breaks, he ends awkwardly, so there’s not a clean break when Ella enters.

    But to be fair, most of the old-time drummers were not overly technical. It’s not until Buddy Rich – who, by the way, adored Webb – that we start to hear this kind of technical mastery. Even by today’s standards, Rich is a wizard: he plays things that are just impossible for others to play.

    But even if, to contemporary ears, Webb’s playing may lack polish, that obviously doesn’t lessen the value of his playing. The value is in his dynamism, the excitement, and the way he drives a band.

    Unfortunately, you cannot hear these qualities on most of Webb’s recordings. Outside of a handful of studio sides which capture his dynamism, the best place to hear what Web is actually doing is on radio broadcasts.

    Here’s one, "Liza," which he recorded live in August, 1938:

    Here’s another, "Harlem Congo," which he recorded in the studio in November, 1937:

    In examples like this we can clearly hear the reasons listeners loved, and still love, Chick Webb: he takes dynamic solos, and in general he played with a remarkable sense of drama and flair.

    One final note: there’s been a lot of confusion over Webb’s age. His birth year is usually given as 1909, including on his death certificate and tombstone.

    gravesite1

    But perhaps because 1909 seems late for someone who became a professional drummer around 1925, Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler’s influential encyclopedia of jazz, first published in the 1950s, cites his birth year as 1902. Burt Korall’s book Drummin’ Men gives it as 1907.

    Two U.S. Census reports identify a Webb family living in Baltimore in 1910 and 1920; both of these state a boy named William H. Webb was born in 1905. You might think that settles the issue. But a major difficulty when using census data is being sure you have the right family! In this case, I don't think it is.

    There was only article written about Webb during his lifetime, a three-part profile published in Down Beat with the horrible title “The Rise of a Crippled Genius,” in December of 1937 through February of 1938. Click here to download the first part.

    WEBBDOWNBEAT1237

    This article says he was born on February 10, 1909, which confirms the date on his tombstone. So all this controversy may be for naught — after all, according to the author, Chick was supposedly interviewed for this piece.

    Join us next time as we take a closer look at another widely misunderstood drummer, Gene Krupa!

    Lewis

    FOR FURTHER STUDY:

    This clip from Episode 6 of Ken Burns’ Jazz series of documentary films does a nice job of recreating Webb’s famous “battle of the bands” with Benny Goodman’s group at the Savoy Ballroom in 1937, with clips of both bands playing the same arrangements:

    Jeff Kaufman’s new documentary film The Savoy King, which premiered at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, features testimonials from many drummers and others who saw Webb play in person.

  • You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter: Slap-Tonguing

    February 24, 2012. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    This is the latest in our regular series of blogs, "You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter."

    Shall We Laugh, Slap, or Triple?

    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

    (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.)

    The Saxophone in Early Jazz: What is "Slap-Tonguing"?

    In the first of his series on saxophone history, Dr. Porter reveals some techniques favored by early sax virtuosi like Stump Evans and Rudy Weidoeft. Read on!

    Everyone who reads about use of the saxophone in early jazz will notice references to “slap-tonguing.” You might even read that Coleman Hawkins, one of the first tenor saxophone soloists, was so embarrassed by his early slap-tongue recordings that he jokingly would say something like, “That wasn't me, that was my father.”

    The Artist As A Young Man
    The Artist As A Young Man

    At another time I'll give more background on the history of the saxophone generally — back to Rudy Wiedoeft and before — but for today let's focus on the question, "What is slap-tonguing?" After all, the phrase is used constantly in the era, but it is a mystery not only to non-musicians and to non-saxophonists, but even to most saxophonists today.

    Dan Levinson is a terrific saxophonist and clarinetist who specializes in early jazz saxophone styles. He explains it as follows:

    "I learned how to do it during a phone call (believe it or not!) with my mentor, the late, great James "Rosy" McHargue, sometime in the late '80s. Rosy spent an hour or so on the phone with me. He told me I had to lie my tongue flat on the reed (that is, under the reed) and create suction, so that when I released it, it would create a 'slapping' sound."

    As one example, Dan has provided us with this recording of "Virginia Blues" (complete with a quote from "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny"), played by Lanin's Southern Serenaders and featuring saxophonist Loren McMurray (also known, wrongly, as “Loring”—see here.

    McMurray died young, just a few months after this recording was made, in 1922. The slap-tongued notes make a pretty strange sound, yes?

    We already mentioned Rudy Wiedoeft, who was a huge influence and inspiration in the history of the saxophone in the 1920s. His composition "Sax-O-Phun” is subtitled “A Study in Laugh and Slap Tongue.”

    The sheet music to "Sax-O-Phun” shows which notes are to be played with slap-tongue technique, and your ears will be able to pick them out in this, his last recording of it and the one with the best audio quality. Here is Rudy Wiedoeft with pianist Oscar Levant in 1925:

    You can also see a modern saxophonist performing “Sax-O-Phun” here.

    If you google "slap tongue" you'll find other resources, such as this page.

    And you'll find this video (demonstrating slap-tongue on a bass clarinet):

    My favorite slap-tongue artist is Stump Evans, who lived only from 1904 to 1928. He was amazing--check him out on tenor sax (not alto, as usually stated) on the alternate take of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Hyena Stomp” (June 1927) — if you can get past the “hyena” laughter at the beginning!

    Now let's listen more closely to the Evans' wild break, which starts at 2:06:

    How about that??! Here he is triple tonguing (very fast repeated notes—saxophonists today are familiar with that method) *and* slap-tonguing at once!

    The most amazing slap-tonguing (and just overall good saxplaying) by Stump Evans on alto sax can be found on another track from this same Morton session in June if 1927, the alternate take of "Wild Man Blues."

    Evans plays great stuff throughout, mostly in short breaks, especially from 2:00 onward, where he takes turns with the clarinetist.

    And again, Evans takes a wild break at 3:00 where he triple-tongues and slap-tongues at the same time. Dan Levinson and I agree that we’ve never heard anybody else do both at once.

    So take 3-plus minutes and check this out from beginning to end, please:

    One last thought: Both of the above Morton tracks are alternate takes, that is, they were not issued on the original 78-rpm recordings, but were only discovered in the vaults years later in the LP era.

    I wonder if the original producer held them back because he felt that Evans’s breaks were just too weird?! Stump plays differently on the takes that were released commercialy as 78s.

    Thanks and join us next time for more jazz discoveries!

    Lewis

  • You Don't Know Jazz with Dr. Lewis Porter: Jazz on Film

    November 9, 2011. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    Whose hat?

    This is the latest in our regular series of blog features, You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter.

    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

    (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.)

    Some Revelations about Two Jazz Films, plus Citizen Kane!

    Dr. Porter reveals some unknown facts about jazz on film, plus Citizen Kane. Read on!

    Of course, I’m most active as a jazz pianist and jazz scholar, but I do have other areas of interest: one area where I’ve also spent a great deal of time after jazz is film, followed by classical and world music.

    In this blog I’m presenting three of my own discoveries from the world of film. The first two are jazz-related, while the third is a bonus: I reveal an influence on perhaps the most famous film of all time, Citizen Kane, a connection that I don’t believe has ever been noted before.

    1. Jammin’ The Blues

    Jammin the Blues is one of the most admired short films in the history of jazz, partly because it is one of the few film records of the legendary tenor Lester “Pres” Young, about whom I have published two books.

    Filmed in August 1944 by famed still photographer Gjon Mili, Jammin’ the Blues is equally famous for its visual artistry.

    Pres and the other musicians, such as trumpeter Harry Edison and guitarist Barney Kessel, recorded the soundtrack in a studio before Mili began filming. During the days of filming, the recordings were played back numerous times, and Mili asked the musicians to try and match or "mime” their work on the recordings every time.

    Perhaps because Mili's background was in still photography, he tended to stage the shots - that is, he would set everything up artistically the way he wanted it, put the camera in place and film, not moving the camera within each shot. Then he edited the shots together, and they are pretty well coordinated with the music.

    It is a bit humorous to note that while Edison, Kessel and others do a good job of matching their fingerings to the pre-recorded music – Edison said later in a filmed interview that he made a real effort to do that - Pres doesn’t seem to be trying at all. In the very first shot, Pres’s fingers show he's playing a different solo from what you hear.

    This is the most famous shot of the whole film: at first, all you see is an abstract, a circle within a circle. After the opening credits, these circles start to move, and we realize that these circles are in fact the rims of Young’s famed porkpie hat.

    Young’s "porkpie" hat was his trademark, which he created by taking a dress hat and folding it down in a certain way. He actually demonstrated how he did this in a pictorial essay in Ebony magazine:

    Lester

    The one public figure who was closely identified with a porkpie hat before Pres was comic film actor and director Buster Keaton. In fact, I have noticed that this famous opening shot of Jammin' the Blues was based on the opening shot of a 1923 short film by Keaton, The Balloonatic! I think of it as Mili's tribute to Keaton, probably inspired by the fact that both artists wore porkpie hats.


    Not only does Keaton’s film contain the same shot, but the shot is the opening shot of the film, as it is in Mili's film, and it is lit with dramatic contrast, as in Mili’s film.

    keatonporkpie1

    I’ve never seen the relationship between these two films noted before.

    2. The Blue Gardenia

    The Blue Gardenia is a 1953 American film by the noted Vienna-born director, Fritz Lang (1890-1976). This isn't a jazz film, but one of its most famous scenes revolves around Nat "King" Cole, who appears in the film playing the piano and singing the film’s theme song.

    Let me summarize the plot of this scene. A woman has just learned that her boyfriend has found somebody else, so she agrees to go on a date with someone new, an artist, played by Raymond Burr, later well-known to television audiences as Perry Mason and Ironside.

    This artist takes her first to a bar, where Nat Cole sings and plays “Blue Gardenia,” then to his apartment to see his paintings. He plays a recording of this same song as background music. He then tries to rape her, and she defends herself, apparently killing him.

    The "Blue Gardenia" theme re-appears in the background, now distorted and anxious. Krin Gabbard, an expert on jazz films and professor at SUNY in Stony Brook, NY, has written perceptively of this scene, and we thank him for providing a clip of this key scene.

    Nobody before now has noted that it is Lang's "homage" to his contemporary, the monumentally influential British-born director Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980).

    Hitchcock's first film with sound, in 1929, was called Blackmail. In fact, Hitchcock filmed a silent version more or less simultaneously. It revolves around a long scene whose premise is precisely the same as the Lang scene, even down to the fact that the date is a painter, and that the musical theme appears in distorted form after the murder.

    Perhaps Lang noticed a similarity between the script he was shooting and Hitchcock's classic, and decided to emulate it, even discussing this with the music composer for the film. In the Hitchcock film, the musical theme is played by the artist himself at the piano, not on a recording.

    You can compare the two scenes for yourself:

    If you would like to watch Hitchcock's entire film, you can find it here.

    3. Citizen Kane

    You might think that there is nothing more to learn about Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ amazing 1941 film, which has been praised and scrutinized countless times. But there is something unusual in a scene towards the end of the film which caught my eye.

    In this scene, Kane's wife leaves him, and, standing alone in her room, he snaps – in his rage, he destroys all her little trinkets, turns over shelves, as he moves stiffly around the room like a Frankenstein monster--and that's the key.

    Welles sometimes spoke disparagingly of the Kane character that he played so brilliantly, and had fun hiding a number of "insider" references into this, his first feature film. This is one such reference: the 1939 film Son of Frankenstein has a similar scene, where the monster destroys a roomful of items. Watch in particular how the monster moves when he strides across the room at about 0:20, and compare it to the way Kane moves. This is another of Welles's methods of "deflating" his Kane character.

    The other revealing similarity is that in the Welles film, Kane suddenly stops when he comes across a snow globe that, we learn later, reminds him of his youth. In Son Of Frankenstein, the monster discovers a children's book of Fairy Tales, and that's what calms him down. By the way, Boris Karloff was a marvelous English actor, great at the Frankenstein monster and great in non-monster roles as well.

    STAY TUNED for the next installment of this blog! Lewis