Buddy Bolden’s Blues

Jelly Roll Morton, General 4003, 1939

It’s a tribute to a guy whose brief period of glory was in a place called Funky Butt Hall, before he spent his last twenty-four years in a mental institution, totally incompetent. It’s sung by a guy whose nickname is slang for the male sex organ. The singer doesn’t quote the honoree spouting words of wisdom, but instead urging someone to “open up that window and let that foul air out.”

All that said, listening to Jelly Roll Morton playing and singing “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” (also known as “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say”), recorded in 1939, just a couple years before Morton died, is a glorious experience, time after time.

The mysterious Buddy Bolden is the person most people credit with inventing jazz—except for, ironically, Jelly Roll Morton, who always claimed he invented jazz. Of course, no one person “invented” jazz. It has way too many antecedents. But you can hear in this record a nice example of the mix of blues, sacred music, and swing that Bolden’s said to have made his mark with.

The record label gives the writing credit to Morton, but most agree that the music and lyrics originated with trombonist Willy Cornish and other members of Bolden’s band, as they played at the Union Sons Hall (the place everyone called Funky Butt Hall). No recording of Bolden and company has ever been found, and Buddy’s estrangement from reality began in 1907, before anything we’d think of as jazz made it to a recording studio.

Mr. Morton was all but forgotten in the thirties, after his heyday during the preceding decade. Styles had changed, former friends and associates had been alienated. But he went out with a bang, recording solo and raconteuring away for Alan Lomax, who also put together a nice bio, Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortune of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz” in 1950. The full-band recording of “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” with Sidney Bechet, Zutty Singleton and other New Orleans lights assisting, is probably as close to being a perfect evocation of that great city in music (and what better way to evoke NOLA?). But the solo Jelly displays piano-playing as deft and artful as always and a voice as timeless as New Orleans’ mystique. It somehow matters not at all that he’s singing about funky butts, foul air, and a man who died crazy and nearly lost to history. “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” whoever wrote it, is divine.

Feeling Good

Ahmad Jamal, Argo 5504, 1965

Jazz is not for 45s.

Prior to the introduction of the 45 rpm and LP formats in the late ‘40s, jazz was recorded and heard on 78s, and there is still no better way to listen to Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, or Django Reinhardt. Then, the LP came along and changed the way people listened to jazz and changed the way jazz artists delivered their music. Monk, Mingus, Miles, and other lights of the ‘50s and ’60s created albums of songs, mostly longer than a 78 or 45 side allowed, that flowed and created a sustained mood. In the CD and streaming eras, the LP format is still the way to listen to jazz.

Yes, there’ve been some jazz instrumental singles that charted in the 45 era. Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” (written by band-member Joe Zawinul) made it to #11 Billboard in 1967, and Cannonball had a couple of charting singles before that one and a couple after. It stands on its own as a powerful 45, compacting a succession of dramatic tension-release waves into a three-plus-minute live performance captured nicely—if enhanced somewhat in post-production—on record.

Ramsey Lewis did Cannon even better, with a whole string of moderate hits and a couple of blockbusters, “The ‘In’ Crowd” and “Hang On, Sloopy.” All of these songs fall into the funky-groove mode, and they all were also big vocal hits by pop singers. “Feeling Good” meets all of these criteria—except that it wasn’t an instrumental hit.

“Feeling Good” started out in Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s 1964 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. Ahmad Jamal transforms it. His piano pattern is hypnotic, the bass punctuation keeps things going, the drums never intrude. There’s space. It’s the kind of groove song that could go on and on, but it’s just perfect under the length restrictions of the 45. (“Leave them wanting more”—advice quite a few jazz performers might’ve benefited from.) I always sigh immediately after Ahmad and the band hit the final beat. I haven’t heard the album the song appears on, The Roar of the Greasepaint–which covers of all of the songs in the musical–but it’s the closer. Perfect.

In the same year of Jamal’s recording, Nina Simone put it on her I Put a Spell on You album, and that’s the version most people remembered—at least until Michael Buble did it decades later. Many others have covered it, from Traffic to Lauryn Hill.

As much as I love Nina Simone, and as strong as this number is in her body of work, I keep coming back to Ahmad Jamal’s combo and their understated and entrancing recording.

Passion Flower

Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra, Bluebird 30-0817, 1944

If you haven’t listened to this record before, you may be startled like I was after the first eight bars, when Johnny Hodges’ alto sax leaps up out of the horn section’s measured, blended ensemble with its eerie, keening cries. Jarring, and then profoundly beautiful.
There was no better pairing of instrumentalist and songwriter in all of popular music than Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn. Hodges was an Ellington stalwart on sax for decades, and was a key component in the Ellington Orchestra’s sound. But he was particularly suited to the ballads of Mr. Strayhorn, Mr. Ellington’s right-hand composer-arranger-accompanist.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a disproportionate number of Strayhorn’s slow-to-medium-tempo compositions were named after flowers

Strayhorn’s most well-known composition is the bouncy, up-tempo Ellington Orchestra theme song “Take the ‘A’ Train.” But his ballads especially draw me in, with their deep, dark, alluring beauty. His moody, complex “Lush Life” made it into Will Friedwald’s Stardust Melodies: A Biography of 12 of America’s Most Popular Songs, right alongside “Mac the Knife,” “My Funny Valentine,” and, of course, “Stardust.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a disproportionate number of Strayhorn’s slow-to-medium-tempo compositions were named after flowers: “Lotus Blossom,” “Lament for an Orchid,” “Ballad for Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus Eaters,” “Violet Blue,” “In a Blue Summer Garden.” Best of all of these, though—right up there with “Daydream” and “Chelsea Bridge”—were “Passion Flower” (1944) and “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” (1947).

Others have covered these songs. Strayhorn himself recorded them in Paris in 1961, on The Peaceful Side. (Incredibly, on this, his only album as leader, Strayhorn is not given writing credits for these songs! “Passion Flower” is shown as being by E. Coates and G. Wiskin, and “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” is credited to Duke Ellington. According to David Hajdu, in his Billy bio Lush Life, Strayhorn wrote in his name on copies he gave to friends.) The recordings are truly beautiful, with assists from the vocal group The Paris Blue Notes and a string quartet. But we miss Johnny Hodges.

Hodges introduced both of these songs on side projects, as Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra. The “Orchestra” playing on “Passion Flower” comprised Ellington players Jimmy Blanton, Sonny Greer, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Ray Nance, and the Duke himself. A mostly different set of Ellingtonians played on “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” and Billy Strayhorn himself handled piano duties. Nice backup bands, yes, to allow Hodges’ alto to careen and wail so untethered, so plaintively that the immense emotional depth of Strayhorn as channeled through Hodges is overwhelming. How fortuitous it was that these two were brought together musically.

Alexander’s Ragtime Band

The Boswell Sisters , Vocalion 4239, 1938, #4 Pop

As a harmony nut, I find I’m often drawn to the music of sibling-harmony groups. Way back before the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers and the Roches, around the same time as the Mills Brothers, there were the Boswell Sisters, still unrivalled in their vocal harmony arrangements, which were heavily influenced by the music of New Orleans, where they grew up. They made quite a few recordings that are among my favorites, with nary a disappointment in their entire recorded output.

…you get the idea that they developed a psychic connection that allowed them to anticipate every swoop, every tempo or rhythm change…

There’s certainly something to be said for the blend of contrasting voices (like the smoky baritone-against-brassy tenor of the Righteous Brothers—who weren’t brothers—or rough Lennon against smooth McCartney), but the complementary voices of Connie on the bottom, Martha in the middle, and Vet on top made the Boswell Sisters’ commingled syncopated phrasing impossible to imitate. Many have tried, including The Pfister Sisters and The Puppini Sisters (neither group actually sisters), and are enjoyable—but not Boswellian. The Sisters were very close, spending hours singing together from an early age, and you get the idea that they developed a psychic connection that allowed them to anticipate every swoop, every tempo or rhythm change, every pause, arranging songs on the spot as they went along. (Of course, I know their arrangements were carefully worked out and rehearsed, but I imagine the process was organic and smooth.)

The Boswell Sisters, the most musical of pop artists, recorded at least one great song about music in every year of their brief career as a trio: “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” (1930); “Sing a Little Jingle” (1931); “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (1932); “That’s How Rhythm Was Born” (1933); “Rock and Roll” (yes, “Rock and Roll”—in 1934!); “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1935); and “The Music Goes Round and Round” (1936). All fabulous!

Any of these songs—or any other Boswells recording—could represent this group’s special charms, but I settled on “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” because that’s the only single of theirs I own. (I have it all on LP and/or CD, but, yes, folks, it’s at 78 rpm that the Sisters really shine.) It’s a 1938 reissue of their hit 1935 recording, with another 1935 hit, “Dinah,” as its A-side. You’ve never heard any other version of either song anything like the Bozzies’ renditions.

Another reason to use this recording to represent the Boswells is the New Orleans connection: Composer Irving Berlin wrote the song, his first big hit (in 1911), about an actual New Orleans bandleader named Alexander.

Now, Alexander Watzke was white, but Berlin’s song’s music owes a lot to black styles and innovations and the lyrics are in black vernacular. The white Boswell Sisters listened to and learned from black musicians and performers around New Orleans while developing their sound, which is hipper—“blacker”—than what any other white singers were doing at the time. (And their N’Awlins accents enhanced the effect.) Unfortunately, though, like Alexander Watzke’s band, the Boswells’ bands were always all-white. It was a reflection of the time: Bessie Smith got Louis Armstrong and James P. Johnson; The Boswells got Benny Goodman and the Dorseys.

Did the Bozzies want it that way? I like to imagine that they would’ve loved to work with black musicians and were open-minded enough to dream of a time, like their black counterparts often did, when black and white music-makers could make their music together, without apologies, without secrecy, without censure and rejection. I’ll probably never know the answer to that one, but I’m happy that the cathartic, expansive music of the Boswells was preserved long enough to be enjoyed in a more enlightened age.

Solitude

Duke Ellington, Victor 27564, 1941

“In my solitude you haunt me / With dreadful ease of days gone by.” Dreadful ease? Sounds like a post-punk band-name, or maybe a vape flavor. What in the hell was lyricist Eddie DeLange thinking when he wrote that? Well, he didn’t write that. He wrote “reveries,” and someone, rather than locating sheet music for this classic song or listening just a wee bit more carefully (and thinking about it for a moment), heard it as “dreadful ease.” And figured that made sense. So these mis-heard lyrics are all over the internet.

According to Duke Ellington, writing in his memoir Music Is My Mistress, he composed this most gorgeous of songs in 1934, as a rush job for a recording session that needed one more song. Lyrics were added later by DeLange. Ellington’s manager Irving Mills also took writing credit, as he often did without contributing a word or a note, to get a cut.

Ellington’s Orchestra had a hit with it late in ’34, and I have that version on vinyl. But I came across a 78 recorded in 1941 that’s all Duke, at the piano. I do love to listen to Duke playing solo—in his solitude, you might say—but often prefer him amidst the colorations of his hand-picked, well-groomed band members. In this case, though, the feeling of solitude is intensified by the focus of the one instrument, the performance in the hands of the song’s creator. Along the way, he tosses in a few of his usual flourishes, but not to excess, and makes an odd modulation, from Db to F, sound perfectly natural.

The flip side of Duke’s solo “Solitude” is Henry Creamer and Turner Layton’s 1921 composition “Dear Old Southland,” which was an oldie by 1941. Duke went it alone on that one, too, recording it, with a little stride action, on the same day as “Solitude.”

Many of the great pre-rock vocalists recorded fine versions of this one, particularly the great ladies—Ella, Sarah, Nina, and especially Billie.

I performed this song for years with a vocal trio. I got something wrong about it, but it was intentional: changing a minor chord to a major in the third bar of the verse, which I always felt was sacrilege, but I liked the way it sounded vocally. So, sorry, Duke. At least I never sang “with dreadful ease of days gone by.”