How Bessie Smith Ushered In The Jazz Age The singer known as the "empress of the blues" is the subject of a new HBO biopic. Jazz Night In America host Christian McBride breaks down her influence and legacy.

How Bessie Smith Ushered In The Jazz Age

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Jazz and blues - they're often treated as one in the same, but how did one end up taking over and surpassing the other, ushering in the jazz age? That's the subject of an upcoming HBO biopic called "Bessie" about singer Bessie Smith and her mentor, Ma Rainey. And who better to explain jazz and the blues than Christian McBride, jazz composer, host of NPR's Jazz Night In America and a regular guest on this program? Hey there, Christian.

CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE, BYLINE: How you doing, Audie?

CORNISH: So I'm excited to talk about this because the star of this movie is Dana Owens, a.k.a. Queen Latifah. She started out in hip-hop and has definitely done more than one jazz album, actually, the first of which came out in 2004. But anytime you do something like this, there's going to be some comparison, so just to start off, here's a little sound from Bessie Smith, a recording of "Downhearted Blues." And then we'll hear a little bit from the movie.


BESSIE SMITH: (Singing) Gee, but it's hard to love someone when that someone don't love you.


QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing as Bessie Smith) I'm so disgusted, heartbroken, too. I got those downhearted blues.

CORNISH: So that's from a scene in the movie where they're basically reenacting one of Bessie Smith's initial recordings.


CORNISH: She recorded for Columbia Records. All right, what do you want to take on first - Bessie Smith herself or Queen Latifah?

MCBRIDE: Well, I think we could talk about both in the same conversation. I'm very impressed that Latifah took this on because I certainly feel that out of all of today's modern artists - popular artists, that is - that she would be the most well-equipped. And I say that from experience, because I had a chance to work with her many times. I played on her second jazz CD called "Trav'lin' Light." People don't even really have any clue just to how talented she really, really is - and for her to take on Bessie Smith, I applaud her.

CORNISH: Can you talk about style a little bit 'cause the thing about Bessie Smith is because she and Rainey and other people in the blues were precursors to the jazz singers that we're all familiar with...


CORNISH: ...Like, we almost take their sound for granted, right? (Laughter).

MCBRIDE: Yes. Yes.

CORNISH: Like, you hear it, but you forget that this was the initial sound, right? This is where it started.

MCBRIDE: This is very much the initial sound. Bessie Smith was known as the empress of the blues. She was born in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Bessie Smith is the one that really brought that sort of - the modern blues sound, and Bessie Smith was pretty much the queen of that area.

CORNISH: At the time that she is becoming popular, like, this is when the Harlem Renaissance is getting underway...


CORNISH: ...Prohibition - and she sells so many records that she saves Columbia Records from bankruptcy. OK (Laughter).

MCBRIDE: That's right.

CORNISH: So just so people can understand kind of how big a star she was, and at the time she was a star when vinyl records were, like, just coming into being, here is one of her songs, "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out."


SMITH: (Singing) Then I'll meet my long lost friend. It's mighty strange without a doubt. Nobody knows you when you're down and out. I mean when you're down and out.

CORNISH: Christian, let's talk about her style a little bit. The first thing I noticed was diction.


CORNISH: You know, we're talking early days of recording, and I can understand every word.

MCBRIDE: Yes, well, you know, she has that little growl every now and then when she says certain words, and that really kind of comes from what gospel singers were doing. And, you know, someone asked the question, like, you know, what's the difference between gospel and blues? I think it's a simple word. It's the simple changing of the word God to baby or sweetheart or something like that. You know, it's the same sound. It's the same feel. It's that same passion. You know, and she was the prototype. You know, everyone from Billie Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald - although they weren't known as blues singers, you can hear a lot of that - the phrasing, the diction, all of that from Bessie Smith.


SMITH: (Singing) Without a doubt, no man can use you when you're down and out. I mean when you're down and out.

CORNISH: What, to you, is the difference between jazz and blues? Is it the kind of thing, like, these days we say hip-hop and rap...


CORNISH: ...And do we use it interchangeably?

MCBRIDE: Yeah. When you think of jazz, certain words like sophistication, elegance come to mind. Blues is really sort of the foundation, I mean because you can't have jazz without blues, no matter how many intellectuals will try to make that argument, You cannot have jazz without blues so to me, the big difference between jazz and blues is - it's really kind of hard to say verbally, but you know it when you hear it, and you know it when you feel it. There's more things in jazz, whereas blues is sort of a raw emotion.

CORNISH: Given what you've talked about in terms of the period and what was happening, what do you think, at the end of the day, Bessie Smith's legacy is? I mean, I think it's interesting that this film is even being made, frankly, (laughter)...

MCBRIDE: Right. Right.

CORNISH: ...Because she's not a figure I think - even though her name is well-known, she's not talked about very much.

MCBRIDE: You know, when you think of the '20s and you think of modern jazz, you think of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Well, for those of us who know, it's the same with Bessie Smith and her predecessor, Ma Rainey. You know, they really started the modern blues/jazz singer. It started with people like Bessie Smith.

CORNISH: It's funny, I hadn't thought of it in terms of gender, actually, but that makes a lot of sense. These are twin. These are, in terms of the building of jazz...


CORNISH: ...These things are bookends.

MCBRIDE: Absolutely, and if you listen to any singer - you know, I mentioned earlier, you know, I think Billie Holiday has a very large sense of the blues in her voice.


BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves.

MCBRIDE: And if you listen to Billie Holiday right behind Bessie Smith, you can't help but go, oh, OK, I hear where she got some of that.


SMITH: (Singing) St. Louis woman with her diamond rings.


HOLIDAY: (Singing) St. Louis woman with her diamond rings.

MCBRIDE: You know, obviously it's one's own personality flourishing, but you've got to get ideas from somebody. (Laughter).

CORNISH: Well, Christian McBride, thank you so much for listening with us and helping us understanding the music.

MCBRIDE: Always my pleasure to talk with you.

CORNISH: That's Christian McBride. He's the host of Jazz Night In America. It's produced by NPR member station WBGO and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

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