72. Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra, “Society Blues”
(John C. Spikes/Reb Spikes)
Sunshine 3003B, 1922 · mp3
Jazz no more originated in New Orleans than rap originated in the Bronx; it merely percolated under the surface there for years before splashing to the commercially-recorded surface, while analogous musics were being played all over, trading influences back and forth as work-related immigration saw populations rise and fall like tides on the levee. But when jazz did come to the surface, among the first and best-known of the names that came out of New Orleans was that of Edward “Kid” Ory, a trombonist who could have passed for white. He played with many of that first wave of New Orleanian jazz masters, including King Oliver, Johnny Dodds, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong — or rather, they played with him. He also developed the early role of the trombone in jazz; rather being a featured solo instrument, as star trombonists like Arthur Pryor had crowned it in the marching bands of the late 1800s, Ory’s trombone was played as a rhythmic element, adding punch and drive to music that was nearly all trill and swerve in the upper registers. He moved to California in 1919 for health reasons, bringing the gospel of jazz with him (a significant contingent of California bands sprang up after his arrival), and recorded a handful of records for the tiny Sunshine label, run by the brothers John and Reb Spikes who had no distribution, but just sold the records in their storefront. This is one of his slower numbers, and he runs glissandos and comic smears on his trombone that actually aren’t the furthest thing from Pryor’s less stiff-backed moments. Not flashy, but solid work; Ory’s was a style that had a limited shelf life, and once jazz turned to the more orchestrated swing during the Depression, he turned chicken farmer. But after the nostalgic Dixieland movement sprang up in the 1940s, he had a career again, and played in trad jazz (as the British call it) circles for another two decades.
73. James P. Johnson, “Keep Off The Grass”
(James P. Johnson)
Okeh 4495, 1921 · mp3
If you’ve never sat down in front of a piano and attempted to bash out a tune with both hands, I’m not sure anything I can say could convince you of James P. Johnson’s greatness. But then, if you have, you don’t need telling: just listen and let your jaw drop open in admiration. Johnson was the father of stride piano, a complex, almost Baroque form of ragtime that added blue chords and swing rhythm, and in addition to being danceable was technically formidable; large hands and an unerring sense of timing are required to play stride, as the left hand travels just as much as the right rather than merely keeping rhythm. As such, he was one of the great innovators of jazz piano, a direct influence on Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Art Tatum, and through them just about every jazz pianist since; even Chet Atkins named him as an influence. He was also one of the great composers of the Jazz Age, writing the era-defining “Charleston” as well as several other pop standards and a body of serious conservatory music that has been unjustly neglected. But apart from his musical achievements, he was also one of the cultural lights of the era, a Harlem Renaissance mainstay who was as likely to be found engaged in a cutting contest with Willie “The Lion” Smith at a Harlem rent party as trading off with George Gershwin at an uptown soirée hosted by society cartoonist Neysa McMein, where F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charlie Chaplin, Joe Louis, and Dorothy Parker were as likely to be playing cards as any other four luminaries of the time. Already the Grand Old Man of jazz piano by the middle of the decade, he was also heavily involved in black musical theater, composing, orchestrating, and performing for the stage, as well as securing recording contracts for pupils like Waller and backing up vocalists like Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith on record. “Keep Off The Grass” is one of his early standards, where a dazzling display of technique is balanced with the driving, danceable rhythm needed to keep a rent party on its feet, the cash and illegal liquor flowing, and the unbridled optimisim of the early 1920s whirling gaily into a future where everything moved with the rhythm, grace, and, especially, the freedom of jazz.
74. Eddie Cantor, “If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie)”
(Buddy DeSylva/Joseph Meyer)
Columbia 365D, 1925 · mp3
Destined to make his entrance in the shadows of Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor was a skinny Jewish kid from the Lower East Side tenements with big eyes and a knack for ingratiating himself. His voice never grabbed the listener by his lapels the way Jolson’s did, and he never dominated a stage the way Jolson did, but he was invariably likable, and his put-upon, nervous persona was as unthreatening as they come — thereby contributing greatly to the midcentury Yiddification of show business. Unlike his model Jolson or his immediate contemporaries and friends Jack Benny, George Jessel, and George Burns, Cantor was never willing or able to gloss over his Jewish roots, and to the end of his days performed with a faint Yiddish accent that never detracted from his status as an all-American icon of vaudeville, radio, and early television. He was one of the principal stars of the Ziegfeld Follies during its zenith in the 1920s; worked in blackface (in an astonishing clusterfuck of showbiz codings, he played the son of black blackface comedian Bert Williams, who was the bigger star by magnitudes) until it became politic for him to drop it, which he did gladly. In later years he was among the first entertainers to speak out against Hitler and fascism, embraced Sammy Davis, Jr. on television when it meant the loss of national sponsorships, and was uniformly among the most decent human beings in show business. One of his many signature songs from his early peak of fame, “If You Knew Susie” is a winking burlesque number which suggests that Susie isn’t perhaps the innocent she seems, but it’s his naïve crows of “oh, oh, oh what a gal” that make the number positively sweet: the Nerd Gets Some storyline didn’t begin with Judd Apatow, John Hughes, or even Buddy Holly.
75. Frank Stokes, “How Long”
Victor 38512, 1928 · mp3
Memphis is not the Delta; its version of the blues have always been more showbizzy, driven more by rhythm and funk than by the unsmiling despair of the classic Mississippi musicians which have done so much to define Depression-era blues in modern ears (think Charley Patton or Robert Johnson). Frank Stokes in particular goes against the condescending stereotype of the blues — raw, unfiltered expressions of human suffering — which can often amount to nothing more than racial tourism. A sharp dresser and a polished performer, he wasn’t a blues purist, but a pop musician who used the blues as simply another helpful tool in his utility belt, and defined Memphis blues guitar playing along the way. (And it ain’t like even the Delta musicians had any pure, primitive ethos either; they would have sold out to the pop market in a second if they could have found any buyers; but even when there were finally were buyers in the 60s folk revival, all they wanted was the same old illiterate sharecropper act.) He was a storehouse of rural black song traditions, from minstrelsy to ragtime to the jug-band music that was a rural approximation of urban jazz in its complexity and heat. This tune, an inbred ragtime cousin of the blues standard “How Long” (has that evenin’ train been gone), showcases Stokes’ punchy, rhythmic playing, a dusty acoustic version of what later Memphis acolytes like Ike Turner, B. B. King, Stax-Volt, and a cast of thousands would turn into rock & roll, soul, funk, and the stars beyond.
76. Bessie Smith, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out”
Columbia 3176D, 1929 · mp3
Bessie Smith was a monster of a woman. I don’t mean she was a paragon of inhuman evil or anything, more in the line of the admiring sportscaster who says “that was a monster of a tackle.” Large in her physical stature, in her appetites, and in every aspect of her performance, she towered over the competition, or rather bulldozed through it with her enormous, world-shaking voice. Not the first of the female blues singers, she quickly became the standard, her bone-rattling moan embodying the spirit of the blues (that is, what people wanted the blues to be, which is all they ever were) much more fully than many of her sweet-voiced contemporaries, who were pop singers or even jazz singers forced into a niche by commercial requirements. Which isn’t to say that Bessie was only a blues singer; she was much more than that. The blues as we understand them today exist because of how Bessie Smith sang. Empress of the Blues, hell; she was the Goddess of the Blues. And like the blues, she was volatile, sexually omnivorous, and possessed of an unearthly, two-fisted dignity that literary academics still recoil from today (cf. Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan In The 1920s). She was also a vaudevillian, a hard-working star on the blacks-only T.O.B.A. circuit who became the highest-paid black performer of her day. Another black vaudevillian, Jimmy Cox (“the Black Charlie Chaplin”), wrote this song, which isn’t a blues but became one by the force of Bessie’s personality and is still treated that way today, when Eric Clapton plays it for audiences of rich middle-aged white males. But instead of self-pitying miserablism, in Bessie’s performance the song is one of the great ballads of the Depression, which was just getting underway as she sang. Even humming, her voice dominates the woozy, commiserating jazz band behind her. The muted trumpet solo even sounds hesitant, unsure of itself in her presence, and she easily hushes it on returning. She herself was getting to be down and out; her volatility and contempt for her condescending white audience combined to keep her off of Broadway stages where sweeter, brisker singers like Ethel Waters and Adelaide Hall were making a killing. A brief comeback in the 1930s would be cut short when, after a nasty car accident, institutionalized racism in the local hospital killed her. Mighty strange, without a doubt.