[JPL] MASTERPIECE White-Hot Jazz Ballad The haunting 'Singin' the
Blues' changed American music
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June 2, 2007
DOW JONES REPRINTS
White-Hot Jazz Ballad
The haunting 'Singin' the Blues' changed American music
By TOM NOLAN
June 2, 2007; Page P14
Eighty years ago, seven young white jazz musicians, led by a 25-year-old
saxophonist from Illinois named Frankie Trumbauer, and including the
23-year-old Iowa-born cornet player Bix Beiderbecke, made a recording in New
York of a tune called "Singin' the Blues."
No one had heard anything quite like this disc in the 10 years since "the
first jazz record" had been made, also in New York, by the Original
Dixieland Jass Band (a group of white players from New Orleans). "Singin'
the Blues" had a subtle swing and a lyrical quality that seemed a world
apart from the ODJB's raucous uproar (though it was that same band's
pianist, J. Russel Robinson, who co-wrote "Singin' the Blues"). Trumbauer
and Beiderbecke's nearly three-minute platter would be called "the first
jazz ballad," and its haunting sound would forever affect the course of
America's indigenous music.
"Singin' the Blues" starts off at a midtempo, foot-tapping pace that
suggests a very brisk walk along a country lane. After a four-bar ensemble
intro, Trumbauer takes the opening chorus, playing C-melody saxophone (a
now-obsolete instrument, a cross between alto and tenor). His improvised
paraphrases and loping commentary on the melody, played over the impeccably
fingered lines of 24-year-old acoustic-guitarist Eddie Lang, seem at once
exuberant and thoughtful, rhythmic and ruminative: 32 bars that mix the
inevitability of art with the ease of conversation.
The second chorus belongs to Beiderbecke, a young man with a horn playing on
and around and in between the beat, in poignant phrases that hit with force
but leave a wistful echo. Some describe Beiderbecke's tone as silvery;
others, golden. But the strong, shimmering, personal sound of Bix always
seems to stir the memory and touch the heart.
The song's final 30 seconds (after a tentative eight-bar clarinet solo by a
22-year-old Jimmy Dorsey) are played by the ensemble; but Beiderbecke's
cornet is front and center, shouting and strutting with authority, leading
the way right up to drummer Chauncey Morehouse's last emphatic foot-cymbal
By 1927, both Beiderbecke and Trumbauer were already well known to other
white players of "hot" jazz. After "Singin' the Blues," they became known to
black players as well. "Singin' the Blues," billed on its black-and-gold
Okeh label as by "Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra with Bix and Lang,"
rolled into all corners of a segregated America.
In the winter of 1927-28, in a hotel in Bismarck, N.D., a teenage
saxophonist named Lester Young heard a record being played in the room of
fellow traveling musician Eddie Barefield, and knocked on the door to ask
what it was: "Singin' the Blues." Young, who would become one of the most
important figures in jazz, a primal influence on at least two generations of
saxophonists, both black and white, is said to have carried a copy of that
Okeh 78 in his tenor-saxophone case for years. Those who listened could
often hear whimsical traces of Trumbauer and little bursts of Bix in Young's
driving, ethereal playing.
What players such as Young responded to in "Singin' the Blues" was the way
both Bix and "Tram" constructed their solos -- not out of disconnected "hot
licks" and tricky '20s gimmicks, but with thoughtful, balanced phrases that
"said" something. "Trumbauer always told a little story," Lester Young
observed. In 2003, a 93-year-old Artie Shaw said: "Listen to Trumbauer's
solo on 'Singin' the Blues.' It's like a poem."
Musicians all over the country learned to play those Beiderbecke and
Trumbauer solos note for note. Fletcher Henderson, the celebrated
African-American orchestra leader, had Caucasian arranger and Beiderbecke
disciple Bill Challis score "Singin' the Blues" for his band with Tram's
chorus written out for the whole reed section; and when Henderson recorded
it, he asked his own cornet star Rex Stewart to emulate Bix's solo.
Benny Carter plays trumpet on a 1939 Lionel Hampton small-group recording of
"Singin' the Blues," though Carter was better known as an alto saxophonist.
Late in life, Carter recalled with pleasure to writer Don Heckman how he and
the Italian-American tenor-saxophonist Flip Phillips once warmed up before a
1950s concert by playing Tram's "Singin' the Blues" solo in unison from
Modern-era clarinetist Kenny Davern told jazz scholar Dick Sudhalter of
having once witnessed two black tenor-men, swing-to-bebop master Don Byas
and the veteran Eddie Barefield (yes, the same man on whose door Lester
Young once knocked), take out their horns during a chance encounter in the
1960s and spontaneously run through Trumbauer's 1927 chorus from "Singin'
the Blues." They told an astonished Davern, "Everybody knew that chorus."
Frankie Trumbauer (whose birthday was May 30) lived until 1956, but his
style of playing was edged aside before the Swing Era. A longtime amateur
pilot, in 1939 he joined the Civil Aeronautics Authority. Maybe he, like
others, later discerned beguiling wisps of his and Bix's '20s lyricism
floating throughout the 1950s "cool school" of jazz.
Bix Beiderbecke, a compulsive drinker, died in New York in 1931, at the age
of 28. Ten years later, when Bill Challis, who'd done much to preserve and
perpetuate Beiderbecke's music, brought some Bix-evoking arrangements to
Glenn Miller, the popular bandleader rejected Challis's charts: He said
people didn't know or care about Beiderbecke anymore.
But some did. Some still do.
Mr. Nolan is editor of "The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew
Archer, Private Investigator, by Ross Macdonald," forthcoming from Crippen &
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