Contrary to what we may sometimes think, the early jazz of New Orleans wasn’t only about the blues and raunchiness. Yes, that was a big part of it, so much so that a popular New Orleans Dance venue was named “Funky Butt Hall.” But in fact, the musical environment which produced early jazz was a fertile mixture of the so-called high and low, refined and crude. Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and their contemporaries heard blues on one corner and opera at the next.
Listen to Armstrong’s 1928 recording of “Basin Street Blues” to hear a good example of this. (It’s not a 12-bar blues but definitely has a bluesy flavor.) When Armstrong arrived at the studio to record the song, he spotted a celesta at the side of the room. He was enchanted by the keyboard instrument’s delicate, bell-like tones and asked the pianist, Earl Hines, to play it on the recording. As you listen to the tune via the link above, check out how prominently the celesta is featured at the beginning and then again at the ending of the arrangement.
Even some prominent musicians and critics don’t understand how representative this approach was to early jazz. Gunther Schuller, in his often excellent book, Early Jazz, wrote, “Basin Street Blues, full of arranged passages, is spoiled by another badly balanced, slightly out-of-tune vocal ensemble, also a celesta introduction and coda which, though sophisticated and clever, are out of place on a blues-ish tune.”
Louis Armstrong was one of the inventors of jazz. He was bringing his own life experience and musical taste and documenting it on record for all of us to experience and enjoy. He enjoyed “sweet” music and felt it was appropriate on a bluesy tune, not for commercial reasons but because he liked it (he said he loved “pretty” music in many interviews). It’s not up to any of us to define what 1920s jazz should sound like. “Basin Street Blues” reflects the richness of the culture which produced it and we’re all the better for having heard it, as it sounds wonderful and also gives us a direct insight into this aspect of New Orleans life a century ago.
For me, Schuller’s comment entirely misses the point of early jazz. This music reflects a mixture of cultures which on the surface seen contradictory, but are maybe more related beneath the surface than we think. New Orleans jazz is where the conservatory meets the street. Where the “high” mingles with the “low.” It’s about going to hear an opera in the evening and then dancing the night away at “Funky Butt Hall.” Let’s celebrate it in all its glory.
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