When Michael Taft of the American Folklife Center received a call asking if the Center would be interested in an old Lead Belly disc, it seemed impossible that there could be one that wasn’t already in their collection; but when Taft asked what was printed on the label and heard “Presto” he was intrigued. Presto was not a record company—it was a brand of recording blank that the Library of Congress had used for field recordings in the 1930s and 1940s.
The disc included a song never heard elsewhere, and it provided the key for identifying the recording session. Titled Todd blues, the song was an improvisation that referred to “Mister Todd” and “Mister Sonkin”—Charles Todd (left) and Robert Sonkin (below left), who collaborated on several field recording trips for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and 1940s.
This blues took the form of a humorous lament on the departure of one of the partners: “Mister Todd went away, Lord, just after Christmas Day/He’s going to California…Mister Sonkin sitting here with his head hung down.” These lines clearly place the recording on 20 January 1942, when the pair recorded Lead Belly in New York City, shortly before Todd left for a new job in California.
This according to “A new old recording by Huddie Ledbetter” by Michael Taft (Folklife Center news XXIX/3 [summer 2007] pp. 13–15).
Today is Lead Belly’s 130th birthday! Below, Pete Seeger recalls meeting and performing with the great singer-songwriter.
McCoy Tyner’s improvisation on Bessie’s blues, recorded with the John Coltrane Quartet in 1964, exemplifies the traditional Afrodiasporic performance practice of apart playing.
A formulation of the art historian Robert Farris Thompson, apart playing occurs whenever individual performers enact different, complementary roles in an ensemble setting. For interpretative purposes, the concept helps to provide a cultural context for certain pitch-based formal devices, such as substitute harmonies and playing outside an underlying chord or scale, which Tyner uses in the course of his solo.
This according to “Apart playing: McCoy Tyner and Bessie’s blues” by Benjamin Givan (Journal of the Society for American Music I/2 [May 2007] pp. 257–80).
Today is Tyner’s 80th birthday! Above, performing in 1973; below, the recording in question.
The eclecticism of Don Byron and his music reflects the decentralization of music in the U.S., where there is no single musical culture but rather mini-, micro-, and subcultures that continually mutate into new idioms.
While eclectic music seems to characterize culture in the U.S. at this moment, the discussion about it reveals certain cultural biases. Byron’s works highlight the tension between assimilation and difference and dispel prevalent assumptions regarding style politics and identity politics.
This according to “Making mischief in the melting pot: The intercultural music of Don Byron” by Barbara White, an essay included in Intercultural music. III (Richmond: MRI, 2001, pp. 15–37).
Today is Byron’s 60th birthday! Below, a track from Don Byron plays the music of Mickey Katz.
The life of the jazz trumpeter Rowland Bernard “Bunny” Berigan resembles nothing less than an ancient Greek tragedy: a heroic figure who rises from obscurity to dizzying heights, touches greatness, becomes ensnared by circumstances, and comes to a disastrous early end.
Berigan was a charismatic performer. His artistry made a deep and lasting impression on everyone who heard him play, while the body of recorded work he left continues to evoke a wide range of emotions. He played a key role in a golden age of American popular music and jazz.
This according to Mr. Trumpet: The trials, tribulations, and triumph of Bunny Berigan by Michael P. Zirpolo (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2011).
Today is Berigan’s 110th birthday! Below, his classic 1937 recording of I can’t get started, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1975.
The second-generation Japanese American Jimmy Araki (1925–91) learned to play the saxophone in a World War II internment camp in Gila, Arizona.
After the War, Araki was drafted and sent to Japan to serve as an interpreter for the Tōkyō war crimes trials. During his stay there he found time to play music, and he became the pioneering figure in the introduction of bebop to Japan. He later enjoyed a career as a scholar of Japanese literature at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
This according to スウィング・ジャパン ― 日系米軍兵ジミー・アラキと占領の記憶 (Swing Japan: Japanese-American GI Jimmy Araki and memories of the occupation) by Akio Satoko (Tōkyō: Shinchō-sha, 2012).
Below, Araki and his group play Broken rhythm (ブロークン・リズム), one of his compositions.
In a city where music traditions are held sacred, the Rebirth Brass Band, anchored by leader Philip “Tuba Phil” Frazier alongside his brother, Keith “Bass Drum Shorty” Frazier, occupies a unique place in New Orleans culture.
Over the course of three decades, the group’s R&B and funk motifs have redefined the standard for brass band music without losing sight of the music’s heritage. Rebirth’s profound influence on brass band musicians endures during second line parades and jazz funerals, and in classrooms and rehearsal spaces citywide.
This according to “Rebirth Brass Band: Keep it goin’ like a heartbeat” by Jennifer Odell (DownBeat LXXXI/9 [September 2014] pp. 44–47).
Above and below, Rebirth in action.
The critical reception of John Coltrane’s saxophonic scream—an incredibly high-pitched, raw, and intense explosion of timbre—demonstrates how our precognitive reaction to sonic timbres can invoke tropes of masculinity and race.
A perceptual/cognitive approach that focuses on the degree to which the listener identifies with the sound, citing recent research on the neurophysiology of audition, locates a biological reason for the phenomenon of musical empathy—the perception that in listening to a sound we also participate in it. Our participation, however, is culturally conditioned.
Coltrane’s saxophonic scream was variously interpreted by music critics as the sound of black masculine violence and rage or as a sign of the jazz icon’s spirituality, a transcendent sound. Music critics’ visceral, embodied interpretations of Coltrane’s saxophonic scream turned on their reactions to the birth of free jazz in the context of the U.S. civil rights movement.
This according to “Theorizing the saxophonic scream in free jazz improvisation” by Zachary Wallmark, an essay included in Negotiated moments: Improvisation, sound, and subjectivity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016, pp. 233–44).
Below, Coltrane’s performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1966.
The Atlanta bluesman William Samuel McTier, who performed and recorded as Blind Willie McTell, is known today for his iconic songs and Piedmont fingerpicking 12-string guitar playing.
When he died in 1959 he passed like a vague shadow, missed only by a few friends, family members, and some scattered blues fans, his music consigned to one of the dustier back shelves of Southern Americana. But that same year the renowned folklorist Samuel Charters published his Country blues, with passages that raised McTell to the status of blues master. In the years since he has risen from his obscurity in stunning profile, as enduring as the vibrant music he left behind.
This according to “Blind Willie McTell: Atlanta’s 12-string minstrel for all seasons” by David Fulmer (Blues access 11 [fall 1992] pp. 30–35).
Today is Blind Willie McTell’s 120th birthday! Below, his much-covered Statesboro blues.
Some jazz critics and fans who admired other aspects of Lionel Hampton’s musicianship criticized him for his raw blues riffing, hard backbeat, screaming and honking saxophones, and stunts like marching into the audience with his horn players or getting the audience to clap along.
“I learned all that in the Sanctified Church: the beat, the hand-clapping, marching down the aisles and into the audience” he explained in a 1987 interview.
“When I was six or seven and temporarily living with my grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama, she’d take me to the Holiness Church services, not just on Sundays but all the time. They’d have a whole band in the church—guitars, trombones, saxophones, drums—and they’d be rocking. I’d be sitting by the sister who was playing the big bass drum, and when she’d get happy and start dancing in the aisle, I’d grab that bass drum and start in on that beat. After that, I always had that beat in me.”
This according to “Lionel Hampton, who put swing in the vibraphone, is dead at 94” by Peter Watrous (The New York times CLI/52,228 [1 September 2002] pp. 1, 35).
Today is Hampton’s 110th birthday! Below, performing Flying home, which is widely cited as a forerunner of rhythm and blues.
While there is no question that Fletcher Henderson had substantial compositional impact on the development of jazz, the term composition, with its overtones of singular artistic control and privileged aesthetic and legal status, fits only a small proportion of his creative work.
Henderson’s career is best understood from the broader perspective of a composer-arranger; indeed, distinctions between composer and arranger—and composition and arrangement, with their implied hierarchy—are precisely the kinds of differences that African American music making continually challenges.
This according to “Fletcher Henderson, composer: A counter-entry to the International dictionary of black composers” by Jeffrey Magee (Black music research journal XIX [spring 1999] pp. 61–70).
Today is Henderson’s 120th birthday! Below, Wrappin’ it up, one of the works discussed in the article.