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Rhythm in Transition
Chapter Outline

As swing soloists developed their virtuoso techniques, the rhythm section had to make even more radical changes in order to keep up. This chapter looks at the brilliantly accomplished innovators on piano (Fats Waller and Art Tatum), guitar (Charlie Christian), bass (including Walter Page, Milt Hinton, Jimmy Blanton), and drums (Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Jo Jones, Sid Catlett), all of whom changed the very nature and function of the rhythm section.

  • Rhythm Is Our Business
    1. The foundation of the swing band lay in the rhythm section: piano, guitar, bass, and drums.
    2. Rhythm sections supplied the beat and marked the harmonies in distinctive ways that fit a particular style. They also made advances toward the musical foreground, helping to set the stage for bebop.
  • Piano
    1. Pianists in swing bands took solos, but pianist-bandleaders limited themselves to introductions, solo choruses, and an occasional mini-concerto. Earlier self-sufficient piano styles peaked during the 1930s.
    2. Fats Waller (1904-1943)
      1. Composer, songwriter, pianist, vocalist, satirist, and prolific recording artist, Waller straddled the line between pop and jazz.
      2. Born in New York, he learned piano and organ and got his appreciation for Bach from his mother. At fifteen he started accompanying silent movies and at eighteen (1922) he recorded two pieces inspired by James P. Johnson. He worked rent parties, played cutting contests, and gained a reputation as an expressive, ebullient interpreter of blues and ballads.
      3. By the late 1920s, he was a prominent composer in jazz and theater music. Louis Armstrong had hits with some of his songs, such as "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Honeysuckle Rose," yet he was unknown to the general public.
      4. Fats Goes Pop
        1. In 1934 Waller and his six-piece band signed with RCA-Victor and recorded two typically comic and swinging pieces, one of which, "I Wish I Were Twins," became a hit, one of many over the next five years.
        2. Waller satirized Tin Pan Alley and sentimental songs but could also compose sincere material. He used different registers of his voice for different effects. His success had another side, however: RCA only wanted hits, not his more serious work, and as a result, by the time he died at age thirty-nine, some of his best work had still not been recorded.
      5. "Christopher Columbus"
        1. Typically funny and musical rendition of a much-recorded piece that became famous with Goodman's use of it as a secondary theme for his 1938 recording of "Sing, Sing, Sing." Andy Razaf wrote the lyrics for this recording.
        2. A mix of stride piano, cross-rhythms, and small-group swing provide the rhythmic power while the accomplished playing of trumpeter Herman Autrey and clarinetist Gene Sedric reflect the dominating influences of Coleman Hawkins and Chu Berry.
    3. Art Tatum (1909-1956)
      1. Tatum was born in Toledo, Ohio, and was partially blind all his life. Even so, and perhaps because of his disability, his spectacular dexterity impresses listeners now as much as it did during the 1930s.
      2. He studied violin, guitar and piano as a child in Toledo, led his own bands by the age of seventeen, and signed a two-year radio contract before he was twenty. Ellington sought him out while passing through Toledo and encouraged him to come to New York, where the influence of higher standards would improve his playing. Singer Adelaide Hall hired him in 1932 and Gershwin threw a party for him to introduce him to the classical elite. His superiority was instantly recognized by stride pianists in New York.
      3. Virtuosity
        1. Tatum's virtuosic style is inseparable from his technique.
        2. Tatum was admired by many jazz pianists, such as Waller (whom Tatum named as an inspiration), and more recent players such as Hank Jones, as well as classical pianists such as Vladimir Horowitz and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
        3. Tatum played nightclubs, dives, after-hours joints, and radio broadcasts, but he played few concerts and recorded only for independent labels. In short, he never was accepted by the mainstream. Perhaps this is because his playing was viewed as "merely" technical, impressive but without artistry. Tatum had an original approach that included harmonic and rhythmic ingenuity as well as virtuosic technique.
      4. "Alone Together"
        1. He was primarily a soloist. This gave him the advantage of being able to change chords and rhythms at will. His busy style of playing, however, could overwhelm other soloists. There were exceptions, however, especially his popular trio (Tiny Grimes on guitar and Slam Stewart on bass).
      5. "Over the Rainbow"
        1. This 1939 recording was the first of five recorded versions and was made only days after the debut of the movie from which it came, The Wizard of Oz, an example of Tatum's amazing ability to quickly make a song his own.
        2. This recording was made for a company called Standard Transcriptions, which made recordings only for radio play. This way, broadcasters did not have to pay licensing fees to air commercial recordings. Eventually, the labels and networks cut a deal and transcription discs disappeared.
  • Guitar
    1. During the 1920s, the guitar held a prominent place as a solo instrument, exemplified by performers such as Eddie Lang, Lonnie Johnson, and Carl Kress, among others. By the early 1930s, however, Lang had died, Kress had left jazz for studio work and to run a nightclub, and Johnson had reinvented himself as a blues star. This reflects a change in the guitar's role during the 1930s to primarily a rhythm instrument that reinforced the roles of the drummer and bassist.
    2. Even this role diminished as band leaders (such as Ellington) saw the guitar as unnecessary.
    3. Plugging In
      1. The problem with the guitar was that it was difficult to hear in an ensemble. Various methods of amplification started to develop (resonators, microphones, pick-ups). Meanwhile, the recordings of Django Reinhardt showed the potential of jazz guitar.
      2. In the early 1930s, the Gibson Company began building electric guitars. After a breakthrough in 1936, guitarists such as Eddie Durham (with Count Basie's band) and Floyd Smith (with Andy Kirk's band) started playing Gibson electric guitars, as did Western swing musicians, who combined jazz and Hawaiian steel guitar practices.
      3. The real breakthrough came with Charlie Christian, who showed that the electric guitar was more than a loud acoustic guitar.
    4. Charlie Christian
      1. Christian's career lasted less than two years, but during that time he transformed the electric guitar into an instrument capable of the same kinds of rhythmic and dynamic capabilities as jazz saxophone or trumpet. As well, he provided an initial impetus for soon-to-be bebop players.
      2. Born in Texas and raised in Oklahoma, Christian took up guitar, trumpet, piano, and bass. He toured the Southwest with the family band, listening to swing and blues from Kansas City and Western swing bands. Mary Lou Williams heard him and convinced John Hammond to arrange an audition for Christian with Benny Goodman, which was held in 1939. Goodman was reluctant at first but changed his mind after hearing him.
      3. Goodman put Christian into his sextet, which was playing on weekly radio broadcasts. He also featured Christian on his big-band recordings. Three months after he joined the Goodman band, an article appeared in a Chicago newspaper, purportedly written by Christian, arguing that electrification had given jazz guitar a "new lease on life."
      4. Christian had a major influence on generations of guitarists; his bluesy, riff-based, logical melodies seemed to change the role of the guitar overnight.
    5. "Swing to Bop"
      1. This recording was made in 1941 by Jerry Newman. He recorded sessions at Minton's Playhouse at a time when Monk and Kenny Clarke were in the house rhythm section, whose job it was to accompany musicians who would drop by to jam.
      2. This piece was originally a swing hit called "Topsy" but was renamed when Newman released it a few years after it was recorded. The word "bop" didn't exist yet so "Swing to Bop" couldn't have been the name. Drummer Cozy Cole recorded a hit version in 1958. This recording starts near the end of Chr istian's first chorus.
      3. Christian constantly varies his riffs and rhythmic accents and takes off on the bridges, all with a relaxed feel.
  • Bass
    1. The bass was the last instrument of the rhythm section to reach maturity. Its traditional role of keeping the beat and outlining the basic harmonies provided little incentive for bassists to expand the instrument's possibilities. Until the 1930s, the average bass solo was a walking-bass line. Bad technique and intonation were commonplace.
    2. Some Prominent Bassists
      1. Walter Page: the leader of the Blue Devils in Oklahoma and an important figure in Kansas City during the 1920s, Page codified the walking bass, which he brought to the Basie band. His rock-steady pulse became one of the hallmarks of the Basie band but was a dead end for other bass players.
      2. Milt Hinton: expanded the walking bass by introducing advanced harmonies, syncopation, and inventive melodic figures. He was in great demand as a recording artist and recorded with jazz, pop, and rock and roll singers while playing modern jazz with boppers such as Dizzy Gillespie. He was also a respected jazz photographer.
      3. Israel Crosby: became famous in the 1950s and 1960s as a virtuoso bassist playing with Ahmad Jamal. Since age sixteen he had been recording with a number of swing pianists including Teddy Wilson, drummer Gene Krupa, and the Fletcher Henderson band (1936-1939). He was known for his bass solos, which was unusual at the time.
      4. John Kirby and Slam Stewart: bassist Kirby wasn't a great bass player, but he was known for his very popular, cool-sounding sextet (1937-1942). The band featured singer Maxine Sullivan, Kirby's wife. Slam Stewart played with singer-guitarist Slim Gaillard and later with the Art Tatum trio. He had great time and perfect pitch and was known for singing along with his solos, which he played with a bow.
      5. Wellman Braud the bassist with Ellington's band. Ellington liked the lower end of the musical spectrum and wrote arrangements that required substantial participation from Braud. For his part, Braud helped develop the walking bass and popularized arco bass playing. Ellington hired a second bassist, Billy Taylor, to help Braud when the music grew beyond his skills.
      6. Jimmy Blanton (1918-1942): Ellington also played an important role in the discovery of the musician who revolutionized bass playing, Jimmy Blanton. He became a central figure in the Blanton-Webster (after saxophonist Ben Webster) version of the Ellington band.
        1. Blanton's career parallels Christian's: he died young, transformed instrumental practice on his instrument, was active during roughly the same period (1939-1942), and changed the nature of the rhythm section. Blanton added melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic nuances.
        2. He first learned violin, then bass at college. He began his professional career on riverboats and later dropped out of school to work with a band in St. Louis. In 1939 Ellington hired him and started writing arrangements that made the most of his talents. Blanton had a sophisticate sense of harmony, an attractive timbre, and authoritative time.
        3. Blanton recorded the first bass solos that departed from a walking-bass style. He can be heard to good effect on "Ko-Ko," "Concerto for Cootie," and "Jack the Bear." Ellington also recorded piano-bass duets with him. Blanton died at the age of twenty-three.
  • Drums
    1. In contrast to the bass, drumming evolved quickly. Drummers were loud and therefore very often the center of attention. Drummers learned to become showmen in terms of their performance persona and instruments.
    2. A genuine virtuosity also emerged as drummers found new ways to keep time, shape arrangements, and inspire soloists. Drumming would change after the Swing Era but it was already a sophisticated practice by the 1930s.
    3. Chick (1909-1939) and Gene (1909-1973)
    4. Chick Webb was the first great swing drummer and the first to lead his own orchestra, one that ruled Harlem's Savoy Ballroom in the early 1930s. He was a dwarfed hunchback (he had his drums custom made), but he played with great power. He influenced most of the major Swing Era drummers.
      1. He started playing when he was very young and came to New York in 1924. Ellington arranged a gig (engagement) for him in 1926, which led to forming his own band. He was struggling in 1931 until Armstrong came to town and selected Webb's band to accompany and record with him. Soon the band was introducing pieces by Benny Carter and Edgar Sampson that would become swing standards, some of them adapted by Benny Goodman. Webb became nationally known when he discovered Ella Fitzgerald and recorded her hit "A Tisket, a Tasket."
      2. In 1937 the Webb band won a battle of the bands against Benny Goodman at the Savoy Ballroom-a particularly sweet victory given that Goodman's drummer was the nationally famous Gene Krupa. Webb died at the age of thirty.
      3. Gene Krupa was one of the white Chicago players of the Beiderbecke circle. He was the first drummer to become a matinee idol. Although not a great drummer, his histrionics could work up a crowd. He was best known for his tom-tom solo on "Sing, Sing, Sing." In 1938 he started his own band and made social history by hiring African American musician Roy Eldridge. In 1943 he was arrested for possession of marijuana but was later cleared. By that time, swing had declined in popularity.
    5. Papa Joe (1911-1985) and Big Sid (1910-1951)
    6. Jo Jones toured in tent shows as a tap dancer. He transferred this experience to the drums. He made his mark with the Basie band, for which he played off and on from 1934 to 1948. His great innovation was to transfer the time from the bass drum and snare to the high-hat cymbal, creating a lighter sound.
      1. Sidney Catlett ("Big" Sid) was a drummer with infallible technique who played in a remarkably broad range of styles and bands: swing with Goodman, Henderson, Benny Carter, and Armstrong, as well bop with Parker and Gillespie. He worked out logical approaches to his dynamically and timbrally varied solos.
    7. More Drummers
    8. Davie Tough was a swing drummer and the first white drummer to master African American percussion. He played with Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Woody Herman.
      1. Jimmy Crawford perfected the relaxed two-beat rhythm with the Lunceford band (1927-1943) and became the favorite of many singers including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday.
      2. Buddy Rich was regarded as the foremost virtuoso on the instrument. He started playing professionally as a child and played with several important bands during the 1930s, such as Tommy Dorsey (1939-1942) and later with Benny Carter and Basie. He later formed his own successful bands.
  • The Best of All Possible Worlds
    1. Swing was bigger than jazz: sweet or hot, highbrow or lowdown, with offshoots like Western swing and novelty, it defined and unified American culture.
    2. Swing music was played by large ensembles (usually fifteen players), plus singers, that toured constantly to play several sets each night at ballrooms across the country. The irony was that, like much of popular culture at the time, it was a luxurious practice that flourished during the Depression.
    3. After the war, it all crashed during the recovering economy, offset by evidence of unprecedented barbarism, the threat of nuclear war, and the return of thousands of troops. The music that followed swing emanated from the mavericks of swing, who would lay the groundwork for rhythm and blues, salsa, star vocalists, and bebop.
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