WBGO Blog
  • Choo Choo Boogaloo: Jazz For Trains

    March 1, 2011. Posted by Simon Rentner.

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    Panel No. 1 from Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series. The panel is titled: "During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans." (Image Credit: Courtesy of The Phillips Collection)

    Locomotives churning across America's vast open landscape provided plenty of fuel for jazz composers in the early 20th century. Railroads symbolized freedom, escape and opportunity for countless musicians, many of whom lived a vagabond lifestyle, always in pursuit of the next gig.

    During the Great Migration, millions of African-Americans packed their belongings and moved north by train in hopes of finding work. So it's only natural that train travel has historically occupied many black artists' imagination, perhaps most vividly in painter Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series, pieces of which can be seen at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

    Over the years, hundreds of blues, folk and jazz songs have been dedicated to the allegory of the locomotive. Here are some of my favorites.

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  • Evolution Of A Song: 'I Got Rhythm'

    February 9, 2011. Posted by Simon Rentner.

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    Judy Garland (right) sang "I Got Rhythm" in the 1943 movie version of the 1930s musical Girl Crazy. (Image Credit: Courtesy of MGM)

    When George Gershwin wrote "I Got Rhythm" for the 1930s musical Girl Crazy, he created one of the most catchy melodies in American history. But little did he know that his lovable song — apart from becoming a hugely popular jazz standard — would evolve into something far greater.

    The song itself, on the most basic level, became the perfect vehicle for jazz improvisers. Swing and bebop musicians thrived on its formula: a memorable 32-bar AABA structure and irresistible chord progression. This structure served as a model for many other successful jazz tunes, some say hundreds, like Duke Ellington's "Cotton Tail," Sonny Rollins' "Oleo" and Nat King Cole's "Straighten Up and Fly Right." Remarkably, the "I Got Rhythm" form rivals only the blues structure as the most adapted, mimicked or ripped-off, depending how you look at it.

    George Gershwin's later symphonic work, "Variations on I Got Rhythm," was dedicated to the song's original lyricist, his brother Ira Gershwin. But even his brother couldn't have imagined the endless variations on this winning composition. Who could ask for anything more?

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  • Roy Eldridge: The 'Little Jazz' Centennial

    January 25, 2011. Posted by Simon Rentner.

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    Roy Eldridge. (Image Credit: William Gottlieb/The Library of Congress via Flickr)

    Trumpeter Roy Eldridge's legendary sound and bravado dwarfed his 5'6" frame. Known as "Little Jazz," and later just "Jazz," his nicknames befit his devotion (five decades) to the art form. His peers spoke of his soulful style and great competitiveness, not to mention his ridiculous chops. These qualities marked him as one of the greatest trumpet kings of all time; he reigned from the late 1930s and beyond, when many other top trumpeters came into the fold.

    But Eldridge's legend endured. He was an innovator who, for many historians, conveniently bridged the gap between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie in jazz's evolutionary chain. This may be hyperbole or an oversimplification, but many agree that Eldridge modernized the way to play jazz. And nobody ever discounted the red-hot passion that once crackled from his brass. On Jan. 30, Eldridge would have been 100, so we celebrate The Little Jazz Centennial with some of his fieriest early performances.

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