As you all know, I am a professional saxophonist and percussionist/drummer, meaning I must rigorously practice every day to keep strong and fresh. Thus, in a previous post I discussed my process of preparing for tour auditions through a thorough study of musical styles and keys. This process is vital not only to auditions, but any creative lifetime project, e.g. becoming a professional jazz musician. Thus, if one is going to develop properly it is vital to use your time away from practicing as wisely as possible, considering how much more difficult it is these to make a living and perform/study your craft full time. But whether it was 8 minutes or 80 years ago, the great performers passionately seek to know everything and anything about even a single song. This also applies to fans too, if they want to really get into the music of their favorites artists.
The secret to this is context: knowing as much about what was happening elsewhere in music, culture, and history as well; what we might call focused listening. This study and understanding of context separates the great players from all others. For example, let’s look at what many consider the foundation of jazz: the recordings of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven groups between 1925 – 1929.
Listening to these recordings is mandatory in jazz history classes at college and many students are familiar with them. But having heard them, the ‘ordinary’ musician assumes that they now know enough about that period to move on. But the musician who wants to become a brilliant player knows that the Hot Fives existed in a musical continuum that included a lot of profound music being made at the same time and earlier. You can’t really know a single thing about the Hot Fives without knowing the recordings of Joe “King” Oliver from 1923; to hear a young Louis developing under the guidance of Oliver, and clarinetist Johnny Dodds in context of the work he was doing with Oliver before recording with Louis and pianist Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers in 1926-27. But in order to understand how we even “got to” Louis we must know the social context of New Orleans musical life. Thus, we must hear Alan Lomax’s interviews with Morton, recorded at the Library of Congress in 1938.
Morton’s recollections of events (including the origins of jazz) are both fascinating and the subject of much debate, as Morton was know to make his own work central/essential to jazz history. This is often true, but Morton’s claims to have invented jazz or written many of its greatest early works often border on hubris. Thus, it is very educational as a sociological, if not historical, document. What is also fascinating to discover is the relationship between songs like Tiger Rag, and the quadrille and mazurka, dances every jazz musician must be aware of if they are to truly understand the evolution of the social music that itself became what we now call jazz.
It is also important to know of these artists in context of Chicago, a city vital to jazz’s development and history “post – New Orleans.” We know of Louis and King Oliver, but who else was there? What we they playing? How was it different? We then must know the music of Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra, or Charles “Doc” Cook’s Dreamland Orchestra as well as Cook’s “14 Doctors of Syncopation.” Why? This is because their recordings from 1923 on included cornettist Freddie Keppard (pronounced with a French silent ‘d’: Kepparr). Keppard was known as the “King” of cornet/trumpet before Joe Oliver, a title he claimed after the legendary Buddy Bolden. Knowing Tate’s or Cook’s work not only educates us on Keppard, but we also get a better sense of what the social scene in Chicago was like at that time; knowing that it was Oliver, Tate, Cook, Armstrong, Dodds, and Keppard who were setting the pace and style for social music at the time (both locally and nationally).
Having heard this wider variety of artists and styles also teaches us something very valuable about the music, statistically. If one carefully examines the width and breath of Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens recordings they will notice that twenty four of them are in the key of G, which amounts to roughly 26% of the overall oeuvre. There are also eighteen songs in the keys of B flat and F, a further 20% each of the total. If we also look at King Oliver’s 1923 singles, we see that eleven of them are in the key of F (29%), while only four are in Bb (10%). This tells us something about each artist individually and comparatively: what songs were in what keys, and possibly, why certain songs would have been more popular to play (it is much easier, for example, to play the trumpet or clarinet in the key of G or F than it is in F#).
Many artists, like Keppard, also played the vaudeville circuit, thus you must also study what was also occurring in that genre. That means knowing the work of artists like Eddie Morton, or Jodie Edwards and Suzie Hawthorne – better known as the comedy duo Butterbeans And Susie. Sadly, most young jazz musicians have no idea who Butterbeans and Susie are, even though they recorded a rather cheeky blues about “hugging” (He Likes It Slow) with the Hot Fives!
But, now that you know the value of listening in greater context, you will be well on your way to expert level jazz performance knowledge, and/or hopefully a greater appreciation of the history of modern music.