"Little Jazz," c. 1958.
My boss readily admits that she doesn't know a whole lot about jazz. But she lets me write all this nonsense on the Internet, so I'm not complaining. And at least she's willing to learn. So every week — or at least as often as possible — she and I get together to listen to and Instant Message about a different great jazz song.
Trumpeter Roy Eldridge would have celebrated his 99th birthday on Saturday. Coincidentally, I recently picked up a compilation of his recordings with Gene Krupa at a used record store. So I thought I'd introduce the Boss Lady to one of Roy's most celebrated recorded works: the 1941 version of "Rockin' Chair."
"Rockin' Chair," from Roy Eldridge with the Gene Krupa Orchestra, Uptown (Columbia). Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Gene Krupa, drums and band leader. New York, N.Y.: Jul. 2, 1941.
Purchase: Amazon MP3 / iTunes
Boss Lady: This is the kind of music that gets piped through the pool speakers at the retirement community in Florida I visit twice a year.
Boss Lady: Water aerobics, anyone?
me: There is kind of a slow, lazy drag about it. Though I would venture there is something that separates this from the Lawrence Welk Show.
Boss Lady: OK, but don't you hear that smarmy wallpaper?
me: Well, the smarminess you hear I think comes in part from the backgrounds: those saxophones and horns that appear to be cooing in harmony.
Boss Lady: I was just going to ask you whether it was the horn arrangements ...
me: Gives it kind of a gauzy feel, like it's pulling everything backwards.
We've been listening to a lot of jumpy, hard-swinging early jazz — "hot jazz," so to speak — this is its antithesis in style.
Boss Lady: In what sense?
me: You might call some of those horn arrangements "sweet" — you seem to think saccharine, but "sweet" was the term of the day. And yes, the brushes on the drums too — they aren't really pushing things forward.
But: that raises an interesting point. Remember this discussion? The same guy going nuts on the drums for Benny Goodman is leading his own band here.
And if you wanted to make a living leading a big band, you had to play all sorts of different styles for people to dance to. Fast, exciting, "hot" jazz didn't always bring people to the dance floor — these "sweet," sentimental numbers were much more likely to in many circumstances.
That said too: again, I would venture there is still something that separates this from the Lawrence Welk Show.
Boss Lady: OK, so what am I missing?
me: It's hiding in plain sight.
You'll notice that this tune — it's called "Rockin' Chair" — it's basically a vehicle for the trumpet soloist. And what an incredible solo, if you really listen to it.
Boss Lady: Yes, it's beautiful. It takes its sweet time and owns the rhythmic space in the song. By that I guess I mean, it's flexible and unpredictable. You follow it like you would some interesting, soulful person talking to you.
me: I particularly like his high notes.
Not every person who has the technical ability to get up there can do it AND say something. You know what I mean? Sometimes incredible musicians leave you cold — but there's something about the space and phrasing here which is, it seems, just right.
Boss Lady: I totally agree. There's an emotional resonance that transcends the notes. And transcends the fact that the arrangement of the song sounds dated.
me: Well, this guy is named Roy Eldridge.
He's one of the greatest trumpeters of the big band era — he played for a lot of them, including Gene Krupa's here.
Boss Lady: Can you get him to come over and play for me? Let's have him to a Tiny Desk Concert!
me: Sadly, he died a while ago.
Boss Lady: What did he do when the big band era faded out?
me: Well, he kept touring, sometimes in all-star groups.
I think he moved to Europe for some time and then came back to New York as a freelancer.
Boss Lady: What else should I listen to by Roy?
me: They're all good.
It's a little difficult to sort out: the groundbreaking recordings are at the beginning of his career, and they're all over the place — he played for a number of big bands, and did a number of small group sessions too. So if you get anything with his name in the credits from the '30s onward, it's probably worth your while.
But he was revered to the end of his days — Dizzy Gillespie said he owed a lot to Eldridge.
Boss Lady: Come on, pick one out of the pack! What kind of self-respecting jazzhead are you?
me: This one will do fine: it's a compilation of Roy's standout work with the Gene Krupa band (also featuring the singer Anita O'Day), though I believe it's out of print.
Do note that this is Krupa, a popular white bandleader, hiring a black musician in 1941.
Boss Lady: So PJ, I just had a thought that really disturbed me.
me: Do tell.
Boss Lady: I was going to ask you who helped Eldrige find his signature sound and then I realized: OH NO, this is the kind of question that jazz people thrive on — connecting the dots between musicians, mapping intricate webs of relationships from musician to musician and style to style. It's the kind of thing that makes people on the "outside" feel totally out of it and intimidated. And so, horror of horrors, I think I might be starting to get pulled in.
Boss Lady: OK, so just answer my question and don't gloat.
me: Who? I'm not super keen on his biography. I presume Louis Armstrong on the trumpet, as with all musicians of that era, and I know he was tight with Coleman Hawkins ...
Boss Lady: OK, well I see you have some brushing up to do. So get back to work!