Thursday, December 18, 2014

Great Saxophonists From The 1920's Through The Swing Era

While I love the jazz from the bop to the post-bop era, and the great saxophonists of that time from Charlie Parker to John Coltrane, my very favorite players came out of the swing era.  Of course, many of the players that would later be the foundation of bebop and beyond got their start with many swing era bands and they would eventually take jazz to newer places while the greats of the swing era became the elder statesmen for future generations.

Swing music was the jazz music of its day, and the popular music of its time.  The greatest standards in jazz were written during this era, and the musicians of this period also established the standard in musicianship and in jazz improvisation.  Most of the greats were able to transcend their styles and adapt to the changing music and changing times, while others just kept swinging as they always did without regard to the changing times, because that's just what they did and others just disappeared into obscurity and some sadly passed away before their time. 

What defines swing is that in 4/4 time, the accents of the beat are on 2 and 4, whereas music like polkas, folk, etc., the accents are on 1 and 3.  Swing gives a more relaxing feel to the music, but at full throttle also injects high energy into the listeners ears and to dancers movements.  As Duke Ellington says in one of his most popular compositions "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing".

It started in New Orleans.  In Dixieland music, which has its roots in the Crescent City, the only wind instrument that was in common use was the clarinet, the rest being brass, percussion, acoustic bass and banjo. The saxophone was never included in a Dixieland band. Then came Louis Armstrong, who really gets credit for bringing jazz to the world, and the concept of swing that is the basis for jazz.  In Dixieland music, the musicians played what was called collective improvisation, where all the players would be playing their solos at the same time, like in parades at Mardis Gras.  Louis Armstrong introduced the concept of the individual soloist, the concept of swing, and as such, it required a higher level of musicianship from the players, because now they would be up front, not lost in the jumble of sounds from the other players in the band. 

When Louis Armstrong left New Orleans to go to Chicago, then eventually for New York which would become his permanent home (when he wasn't constantly on the road), he established jazz as a legitimate force in music, a music that required as high a level of musicianship as classical music.  A swing band had to be tight and the musicianship precise in order to play the charts, but at the same time the musician had to think literally on their feet because improvisation was also the main component of jazz.  The saxophone became an important part of the big band for several reasons. As a reed instrument, it has a voice-like quality, capable of a wide range of tonal expression and the sax section can act like a string section in an orchestra.  Being made out of brass, it had the power to be heard like the brass instruments.  The keywork made it possible to play fast, smooth and flowing lines, making it a perfect instrument for improvisation.  The configuration of the modern big band sax section can be attributed to Benny Carter, who wrote the first arrangement for 2 altos, two tenors and 1 baritone when he was with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1928 and which became the standard configuration for reed sections since.

The swing era saw many of the greatest saxophone players of all-time come into prominence, and they were the parents and grandparents of what would become modern jazz, because I don't care what style of music you play, if you play the saxophone, you owe a lot to these players.

Sidney Bechet

The jazz saxophone really did start in New Orleans.  At the same time Louis Armstrong was introducing his innovations to jazz, Sidney Bechet was playing the first jazz saxophone, which was the soprano.  It makes sense, since until that time clarinet was the only reed instrument in the Dixieland bands and Bechet was originally a clarinet player.  He made the switch to soprano saxophone since it was so much like a clarinet,  and the saxophone made its entry into jazz. Later on Bechet would move to Boston, and took on a young protege by the name of Johnny Hodges.  Later, Bechet would live in France where he was lionized, and there is a statue of him erected in Paris, as well as in New Orleans. 
Sidney Bechet
 Here is Sidney Bechet in a live performance

Frankie Trumbauer

When Louis Armstrong came to Chicago he influenced musicians of all races.  During the 20's, there would be a couple of white musicians that would put their own stamp on jazz and influence players of all races.  They were Bix Beiderbecke, the legendary cornetist, and his sidekick Frankie Trumbauer, who was the only saxophonist to make his mark on the C Melody saxophone.  For the uninitiated, most saxophones are pitched in Eb or Bb like most other wind and brass instruments, some have been pitched in F at one point, which means they are transposing instruments.  If you were a sax player reading off a piano chart, you would have to transpose in order to play it in key.  The C Melody allowed the player to read directly off piano or guitar sheets without transposing.  In pitch, it falls between the alto and tenor, and if it had a straight neck, looked like a large alto, curved neck like a small tenor.  The C Melody was eventually discontinued around 1931 as a regular production saxophone, and could only be obtained thereafter as a special order. 

Frankie Trumbauer possessed a high level of musicianship, and his facility was well known.  He was cited as an influence by Benny Carter and Lester "Pres" Young, both who started on the C Melody before taking up the horns they would become more famous for.  Lester Young even said that his softer tone on the tenor was attributed to getting that C Melody sound on his tenor. Frankie Trumbauer was to make many recordings with Bix Beiderbecke, but later retired from music to become a professional aviator.  
Frankie Trumbauer
 
 Here are two examples of Frankie Trumbauer playing with Bix Beiderbecke.  The first one, "Trumbology" demonstrates his technical agility.  The second one, "Singing The Blues", shows his lyrical side.


Coleman Hawkins

Jazz saxophone as we know it really got started with Coleman Hawkins.  He is the father of the tenor saxophone, and until Lester Young came along, his boisterous sound was the standard for tenor saxophone, and still influences many tenor players to this day, in jazz and rock.  He came into prominence with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, and in the 1930's moved to France where he studied music theory.  When he returned in 1939, he made the landmark recording "Body and Soul", which would redefine jazz and become the precursor to bebop.  Up until that time, players would improvise over the written chord changes.  Coleman Hawkins introduced the concept of improvising new changes over the existing chord patterns, allowing the player to expand his ideas and create newer variations on the melody.   He continued to be an influence and an elder statesman of jazz until his death in 1969. 
Coleman Hawkins
 Here is the classic 1939 recording of "Body and Soul"


Johnny Hodges

Johnny Hodges was one of the three original swing era stylists on the alto saxophone, which was comprised of him, Benny Carter and Willie Smith.  He started on soprano saxophone as a student of Sidney Bechet in his hometown of Boston, then switched to the alto saxophone so as not to be too much like Sidney Bechet.  He moved to New York and achieved prominence as the lead alto with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.  Through the years he would leave Ellington to form his own small combos, but would always eventually end up back with Duke until his death in 1970.  Ellington considered Hodges alto as important to the overall sound of the orchestra, and Duke along with Billy Strayhorn composed several pieces to showcase his unique voice.  His sound could be characterized as smooth, very vocal, with a firm blues base. He was the most lyrical of all alto saxophonists, but he could also play a gutsy blues when the occasion called for it.  Charlie Parker called him "the Lily Pons" of the saxophone, referring to a famous opera singer of the period who had a beautiful voice.  John Coltrane also cited Hodges as an influence, and in fact apprenticed under him in one of Hodges small combos when he took a sabbatical from the Ellington Orchestra in the 1950's.  
Johnny Hodges
Johnny Hodges playing "Prelude To A Kiss" with Ellington, which I consider one of the most beautiful ballads ever played on the alto saxophone

Benny Carter

The second of the original swing era stylists, Benny Carter was and is my main influence on the alto saxophone. His career spanned 80 years, from the beginnings of jazz way into the modern era, outliving his contemporaries and many of his musical descendants.  He was the first to arrange for what would be the standard modern saxophone section, and he was as talented on the trumpet as he was on the alto.  He was instrumental (no pun intended) in integrating the musician unions so that not only could black musicians receive the same scale and vie for the same jobs, but also so that musicians of all races could play together without the restrictions that were in place at the time.  He has scored for Hollywood movies and TV shows (M Squad with Lee Marvin), arranged for other bands like Gene Krupa and Count Basie, lead his own big bands that would feature musicians who were later to form the basis of modern jazz, like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Max Roach, J.J. Johnson, Art Pepper and Kenny Clarke.  Miles Davis has said, "Everyone should listen to Benny Carter.  He is a music education unto himself".  
Benny Carter
This is a film documentary on the life of Benny Carter "Symphony In Riffs" which is also the title of one of his more famous swing era big band compositions.

Willie Smith

The third swing era alto stylist to be included in the "Alto Triumverate" is Willie McLeish Smith.  Willie Smith rose to prominence in the 1930's with the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, then would later go on to play with Duke Ellington, replacing Johnny Hodges when Hodges left on one of his sabbaticals to form his own small combos, then with Gene Krupa, playing many of the Jazz At The Philharmonic concerts with Gene's trio, and then playing the remainder of his career with the Harry James Orchestra.  His style could be considered somewhere between Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter.  His tone was smooth like Hodges, and his technical facility like Benny Carter.  
Willie Smith
Here is Willie Smith playing Sophisticated Lady with Duke Ellington, also featuring Harry Carney on Bass Clarinet

Harry Carney

Harry Carney was the first real baritone saxophone soloist and came into prominence with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, where he was to play for his entire career.  His rich and robust sound was a mainstay in the Duke Ellington sound along with Johnny Hodges.  
Harry Carney
Here is Harry Carney playing "Sophisticated Lady" with Duke Ellington. Note his use of circular breathing to sustain that last note indefinitely.


Lester Young

Lester "Pres" Young was one of the most original stylists on the tenor sax. He represented the antithesis to the big fat Coleman Hawkins influenced sound, playing in a softer almost alto like tone, which made it difficult for him to get gigs early on in his career.  He finally found a home with the Count Basie Orchestra, becoming one of the most influential tenors in jazz.  He also made many legendary recordings with Billie Holiday, and in fact he was the one who dubbed her "Lady Day".  They were the perfect compliment to one another.  His fluid lines, based on the thematic approach as opposed to the chordal approach were the opposite of the Hawkins style, and he influenced future generations of saxophone players in the modern era.  He created the classic jazz cat's style with his own vernacular and his pork pie hat, and that he smoked marijuana regularly.  He was misunderstood much in his life, and that lead to many personal problems. He died in 1959, and Charles Mingus wrote "Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat" as a tribute to his memory. 
Lester "Pres" Young
 
Here is Lester Young playing "Mean To Me".

 Leon "Chu" Berry


Chu Berry's career lasted only 10 years when it was cut short in a tragic car accident in 1941.  At the time of his death, he was becoming as influential a saxophonist as Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, and had he lived, would no doubt have occupied the same place in the pantheon of the greats.  He had a big sound and a very advanced harmonic conception for the time. He was and still is a great influence on later generations of tenor players.  He played with Benny Carter, Fletcher Henderson, and with Cab Calloway until his untimely death.  He played the Conn New Wonder Transitional saxophone which would later unofficially bear his name and has gone by that ever since.
Chu Berry
Chu Berry playing "Body and Soul" in 1938, one year before Coleman Hawkins' landmark recording.  Also featured is Roy Eldridge on trumpet.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lor80WUVbtw

Ben Webster

Ben Webster, who was also known as "The Frog" and "The Brute" was one of the most influential tenor saxophonists in jazz.  Though firmly rooted in blues and swing, and not really flexible in other styles, he still remained a strong influence on modern players for his raspy and big sound in uptempo swing numbers, and his breathy, very identifiable sound in ballads.  Ben Webster credited Johnny Hodges as his influence, and in fact, Ben did play in the Ellington Orchestra for three years, his most notable solo featured in "Cottontail".  He played with a virtual Who's Who of jazz greats: Oscar Peterson, Benny Carter, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Ellington, Sid Catlett, Charlie Parker, and the list goes on.  He was an influence on players like Scott Hamilton.  He spent the last ten years of his life in Europe, dying in Denmark, and his ashes are interned in Copenhagen.
Ben Webster
 Here is Ben playing the Billy Strayhorn composition "Chelsea Bridge" in his unique ballad style


Jimmy Dorsey

Jimmy Dorsey was actually a more influential alto saxophonist than is generally known.  Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley have cited him as one of their influences.  Jimmy played early in his career with Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer.  later, he formed the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra with his brother famed trombonist Tommy, but their differences lead to the breakup of the band and they went their separate ways until they rejoined briefly in the 50's until Tommy's death in 1956.  Jimmy died 8 months later in 1957. He had a tremendous technical facility, playing songs at incredible speed when he wanted.  His two showpieces, "Oodles Of Noodles" and "Beebe" show his agility on the alto.  He also played the clarinet. 
Jimmy Dorsey
Here is Jimmy playing his two showpieces.  First "Beebe" followed by "Oodles Of Noodles"



 Herschel Evans


For three years, Herschel Evans sat next to Lester Young in the Count Basie Orchestra, playing some of the most memorable duets in any big band.  Their contrasting styles worked perfectly together, as in "One '0' Clock Jump".  Herschel was a big influence on Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb and Buddy Tate.  He also played with Harry James, Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson.  He died of heart disease at the young age of only 29.  
Herschel Evans
This is the Count Basie Orchestra with Herschel Evan taking the tenor solo on "Basie's Boogie". 

Illinois Jacquet

Illinois Jacquet can be considered the first of the "Texas Tenors", a style characterized by liberal use of the upper and lower registers, big sound, lots of honking and squealing, and which would influence the sound of R&B and Rock saxophone styles.  He came into prominence with the Lionel Hampton band with "Flying Home".  
Illinois Jacquet
Here is an excerpt from "Texas Tenor: The Illinois Jacquet Story

Arnett Cobb

Another "Texas Tenor", Cobb was also known as the "Wildman Of The Tenor" because of his raucous style. He played in Lionel Hampton's Band after Illinois Jacquet, and was also an influence on later R&B and Rock saxophonists.  He died in 1989.
Arnett Cobb
Here is Arnett Cobb playing in a more relaxed manner, but still with a big sound, almost sounding a little like Ben Webster


Pete Brown

Pete Brown doesn't get a lot of mention but I think it's time.  He was an alto saxophonist, and had a light, airy sound that was the main influence of Paul Desmond.  It was said that Paul could play every Pete Brown solo from his head.  He played with Willie "The Lion" Smith, Buster Bailey, Sammy Price, Coleman Hawkins, and made his last appearance with Dizzy Gillespie in 1963 shortly before his death. 
Pete Brown
You can definitely hear Pete Brown's influence on Paul Desmond with his version of "Moonlight In Vermont"

Bud Freeman

Bud Freeman began his musical career with the "Austin High Gang" in Chicago in the 1920's.  Later he would play with Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman before forming his own band.  Later he was a regular fixture at Eddie Condon's Club on W. 52nd Street.  He died in his hometown of Chicago in 1991.
Bud Freeman
 Here is Bud Freeman performing at the Chicago Jazz Festival in 1985



Louis Jordan

Louis Jordan achieved his greatest popularity from the 1930's until the 1950's and was known as "King Of The Jukebox" and was the most popular bandleader after Duke Ellington and Count Basie. He was a consummate showman as well as an excellent musician, and composed many classics of swing and early R&B, most notably "Caldonia" which was later covered in a more modern arrangement by Woody Herman. His style of energetic swing and blues influenced the sound of early rock 'n' roll music, especially with his use of the electric guitar and organ.  His main sax was alto, but he played tenor as well, and was a great performer with a comedic flair.  He died in 1975.  
Louis Jordan
 Here is Louis Jordan with perhaps his most famous number, "Caldonia"


Marshal Royal

Marshal Royal has played with Lionel Hampton, and for 19 years was lead alto and music director of the Count Basie Orchestra until 1970.  He also played with Duke Ellington and Earl "Fatha" Hines. In 1989 he took the lead chair in Frank Wess' Big Band until his death in 1995.
Marshal Royal
Here is Marshal Royal with the Count Basie Orchestra playing "Lonely Street".

There are other great players that I left out, like Bud Johnson, Buddy Tate, Tab Smith, Earl Bostic, Lucky Thompson, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, all worth checking out, but these are among my favorites of the period and players that really set the standard for jazz saxophone and later styles as well.  














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