Jazz and Trains: A Connected History

It is no secret that Jazz musicians, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, had a fascination with trains. Piece after piece has train whistle imitations and train references in its title. Where did this interconnectedness between Jazz and trains come from?

Constructing Railroads in the United States

American music has a long-standing connection to trains that reaches back before the advent of Jazz in the late 1910s.

Railroad construction in the United States began in the late 1820s, the first railway to charter freight and passengers being the Baltimore and Ohio constructed in 1827. By the 1870s, there was already a vast network of railroads spanning the country, allowing for unprecedented travel of goods and people.

One of the reasons that railroads were able to be constructed so rapidly was the use of slave labor. Southern railroad companies began buying slaves in the early 1840s and used enslaved labor almost exclusively to construction their lines. Thousands of enslaved African Americans were working on Southern railroads by 1850. In spite of the immense hardship of this labor, trains became a “symbol of hope and transformation” for enslaved people and their descendants (Davis, p. 82).

Pullman Porters and the Great Migration

Shortly after the Civil War, businessman George M. Pullman hired thousands of African American men to work on his luxury railroad sleeping cars. While these men were often severely overworked and underpaid, porters were paid more than many other Black workers at the time.

In 1925, Pullman porters established the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union to represent Black workers because the American Railway Union refused to include them. They were trailblazers, securing the first-ever agreement between a union of Black workers and a major U.S. company, successfully bargaining for a more reasonable work schedule and better wages. This accomplishment was monumental and lead to further economic mobility for Pullman porters and their families.

The Great Migration was crucial to the development of American music and every facet of society. From 1916 to 1970, more than 6 million African Americans moved from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest, and West. They sought better economic opportunities and an escape from the segregation of the Jim Crow South. In moving, they brought their music, cuisine, and customs with them. This newfound means of travel allowed for a broader and more rapid exchange of ideas.

Trains in Early Black American Music

The Crush Collision March, Scott Joplin

This piece was written to commemorate the train crash in “Crush, TX.” The train crash was a marketing scheme for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad Company. They built a fake town and named it Crush after the railway agent William Crush who planned the event. Two soon-to-be retired trains were commissioned to crash into each other, head-on. About 40,000 people showed up for the spectacle, including Scott Joplin. Two people died and many were injured, but spectators still rushed toward the collision to find a piece of the exploded trains as a souvenir.

More on the Crush Collision.

Linin’ Track, Lead Belly

Huddie Ledbetter (c. 1888–1949), better known as Lead Belly, performs Linin’ Track. He was legendary for picking a 1,000 lbs of cotton a day, and lining the railroad tracks.

Famous Jazz Pieces Incorporating Trains

Daybreak Express, Duke Ellington

Ellington uses his orchestra to emulate the sounds of a speeding train.

Chattanooga Choo Choo, Glenn Miller

In his WBUR interview, Rob Kapilow breaks down the music and lyrics behind Chattanooga Choo Choo. Regarding the lyrics:

“The lyrics immediately give you a feeling of what the Civil Rights situation was at the time. I mean, it’s amazing how lyrics embed American history within them. You know, ‘pardon me, boy, is that the chattanooga choo choo?’ Then they go, ‘yes, yes, track 29.’ ‘Boy, you can give me a shine.’ I mean, in just those few lines yo get the whole situation of the south in the 1940s with luxury train travel in which white passengers are served by Black pullman porters and Black shoeshine boys, which was almost the only regular employment that you could get at the time. And in just those few lines, you get the world of Plessy versus Ferguson, of separate but equal, of segregated luxury train travel.”

– Rob Kapilow

Further Learning

This is an area of American history that I am just beginning to explore. I was inspired to learn more after reading Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz, in which a passing reference to train whistle imitation sparked my curiosity dig deeper.

Here are a few more resources to explore:

Choo Choo Boogaloo: 5 Jazz for Trains, A Blog Supreme

Railroads in the African American Experience, book

Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, The Syncopated Times

The Train in Jazz & Blues podcast, from the The Joys of Jazz

Solo Transcription: Lou Donaldson’s “Minor Bash”

I always enjoy learning a Lou Donaldson solo. He plays with great clarity, intention, and inventiveness. All his lines feel great under the fingers. And his sound is incredible — full but not overwhelmingly bright with the perfect subtle, warm vibrato at the ends of his phrases.

His solo on “Minor Bash” from a 1970 Blue Note record is a short and savory masterpiece. Donaldson’s ideas unfold with perfect pacing, drawing in the listener. But what captured my attention and fascination with this solo is how he subtly drew upon several facets of the Jazz tradition. Perhaps these references were intentional, a subconscious part of his musical persona, or this could be me reading into the performance too deeply and interpreting it through my own biases and aural understandings.

Download a copy of the transcription and get ready to dive in deep.

———

In measures 38-40, Donaldson quotes the melody from “Habanera,” one of the famous themes from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen.

Maria Callas performs “Habanera” from Carmen in Germany, 1962

While this may seem like a minor and possibly humorous detail, this tradition goes back to one of the paramount figures in American music and culture, Louis Armstrong. In his book Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman (from my summer reading list), Joshua Berrett discusses Armstrong’s affinity for opera that came about early in his life. Musician Jon Batiste shared in an interview how opera influenced the way Armstrong approached playing trumpet playing, with a singing quality.

Jon Batiste discusses opera’s influence on Louis Armstrong

Ricky Riccardi, director of research collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, points to one of Armstrong’s most celebrated recordings, “West End Blues,” to showcase opera’s profound impact on the artist. Riccardi writes, “The opening unaccompanied cadenza, fueled by the trumpeter’s love of opera, might well be the most famous 12 seconds in jazz.”

Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five perform “West End Blues,” (1928)

———

Back to Lou Donaldson…

Another moment of his solo on “Minor Bash” that caught my attention was his rhythm in measures 70-71. The accented (emphasized) beats line up with the classic “Charleston” rhythm made famous by James P. Johnson’s 1923 composition by the same name. This iconic rhythm harks back to an earlier time in this music’s development, giving a nod to the fore-parents of this tradition.

James P. Johnson performs “Charleston,” 1923

———

This is perhaps the most outlandish sonic connection I made, but it is unshakeable once I heard it. At the very end of the solo, Donaldson plays a short quarter note followed by a longer accented note on the second beat. I immediately connected this with one of the themes from Charles Mingus‘ “Fables of Faubus.” This was perhaps aided by the fact that one of the areas where this rhythm occurs is on the same pitch as it appears in “Minor Bash,” though the pitch is the tonic in “Minor Bash” and the fifth scale degree in “Fables of Faubus.” The placement of this rhythmic stress goes against the grain and does not appear particularly often, which made it

———

What do you think of this solo and the musical connections that resonated with me? Let me know in the comments.

And in case you didn’t get your copy yet…

or browse my full collection of transcriptions.

Cab Calloway and Minnie the Moocher

The word “Jazz” has become a broad umbrella term for many different nuanced musical styles. It is rare to find someone who is truly knowledgable about the many traditions that sprouted from the mixing of African, Latin, and European musics in New Orleans. I would certainly not consider myself to be such a person, though I aspire to be one day.

From my time studying music at the collegiate and graduate level, I have noticed that large swaths of the jazz tradition are not discussed. I think there could be many reasons for this. Here are a few that might be most pertinent:

  1. Ignorance. People have not put in the time to study some of these areas of the tradition.
  2. The music is not considered “serious.” Academia might be afraid to take on music that is seen as “popular” rather than “art music.” (Personally, these lines become more blurred for me over time. I try to live by Duke Ellington’s philosophy – “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.)
  3. There is not a widely circulated, tried-and-true methodology for teaching music in these styles.

For me, Cab Calloway has been one of those names mentioned in passing. He was never discussed during my five years of collegiate jazz education. I came across his name in my own reading, but never dug into his music.

I read about Cab in Bill Milkowski incredible book Swing It!: An Annotated History of Jive. I highly recommend it. It is a lively read jam-packed with listening recommendations. He shines a light on this area of the jazz tradition that is often dismissed for popular music.

I listened to some of the recommended tracks, but being fully immersed in my graduate studies and work multiple jobs, I could not devote the time this book and music truly deserved.

Months have gone by. A couple nights ago, I was on YouTube and the following video showed up as a recommendation. I am not sure why I decided to click, but I am so glad I did.

Cab Calloway’s performance of “Minnie the Moocher” from The Blues Brother (1980)

At first, I was taken aback. To me, the performance appeared to a mere caricature of the “golden years” of Cab Calloway’s career. A phony backdrop depicting the long-shuddered jazz clubs where he played in his youth. The retro desks for the horn players. The white suit.

But, for reasons I cannot explain, I found myself replaying the video again and again. For hours. I started to see something different in it. Here is a man in his 70’s who is still able to put on an absolutely outstanding performance – as a musician and entertainer. Here is an audience that is showering him with love. Here is a team of directors, producers, etc. who recognized the importance of Cab Calloway and wanted to include him and introduce him to a new audience. How could anyone not marvel at this?

A 1934 performance of “Minnie the Moocher”

My obsession with this performance continues. I wanted to learn as music about it as I could. I found a couple interesting facts on IMDb.

This story reminded me of Ella Fitzgerald’s infamous “Mack the Knife” performance:

When Cab Calloway originally recorded “Minnie The Moocher” in the 1930s, the chorus lyrics were simply “Ho-dee-hody” rather than the lengthened “Hody-hody-hody ho”. In an interview, Calloway explained that one time when he was singing the song, he suddenly forgot the words, so he immediately shouted “Hody-Hody-Hody-ho!”, and carried on the song that way. That proved to be more popular with fans than the original, so he had been singing it that way ever since.

IMDb

This one resonates with my first impression of the performance:

When recording the soundtrack, Cab Calloway was needed to record his hit “Minnie the Moocher” in better quality than his original album. When he came into the studio, he was prepared to do the disco version, which had just been released. The filmmakers asked for the original version, which Calloway reluctantly gave them.

IMDb

I hope that Cab Calloway was ultimately able to enjoy the experience. Based on this story, it sounds like he did.

What are your favorite Cab Calloway recordings? How can we integrate this important figure, and his legacy, into jazz education?


Did you enjoy this post? Consider supporting me on Patreon so I can continue to write these posts.

Four – Is There More To It?

I am in the process of building up a quintet book for my band consisting of originals and arrangements of my favorite standards. One of the tunes I have arranged is pianist/composer Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now.” The ballad became a signature piece in vocalist Sarah Vaughan’s repertoire.

Sarah Vaughan sings “If You Could See Me Now” with the Count Basie Orchestra

I first came across “If You Could See Me Now” on Tadd Dameron’s album The Magic Touch while I was searching for one of Dameron’s few extended works entitled “Fontainbleu” (also worth checking out). “If You Could See Me Now” was simply a gem I stumbled upon.

Barbara Winfield sings “If You Could See Me Now” on my favorite Dameron album, The Magic Touch

I always enjoy learning more about the history of jazz in my hometown of Cleveland and bringing more visibility to Tadd Dameron. That is why I arranged two of his tunes for my senior performance recital, including “If You Could See Me Now.”

My arrangement of “If You Could See Me Now” as performed in my senior undergraduate recital, May 2019

I have performed this arrangement with a few different groups and, after each time, at least one person in the ensemble told me that the ending of “If You Could See Me Now” reminded them of the ending of Miles Davis’s tune “Four.” They are undeniably nearly the same in terms of both melodic content and harmonization.

K.J. McElrath from JazzStandards.com validated this unmistakeable resemblance.

The progression in mm. 5-8 of section “A” is noteworthy in its use of the embellishing F#m7 -B7 cadence in m. 5. A simple I -V7(+5)/IV ( Eb -Eb7(+5) in the original) would have worked just as well. The changes Dameron chooses at this point are also heard in the final measures of a later Miles Davis tune, “Four.

– K.J. McElrath, JazzStandards.com

However, this synopsis did not help me prove that Dameron’s tune had a direct influence on Davis’s later composition.

In search of more answers, I tried to find more information about collaborations between Davis and Dameron. While I knew that both artists were active on the 52nd Street bebop scene at the same time, I was unaware of any evidence of direct collaboration. In writing this post, I came across a live album from 1949 entitled Miles Davis/Tadd Dameron Quintet that was recorded during a jazz festival in Paris. They played several of Dameron’s originals, unfortunately not including “If You Could See Me Now,” as well as standards. Davis blasted blazing bop lines throughout, a stark contrast from his iconic spacious modal playing. I was also thrilled to find one of my favorite (and under-discussed) saxophonists, James Moody fronting the band with Davis.

Miles Davis and Tadd Dameron sharing the bandstand in 1949

As I continued digging, the plot thickened. There have been allegations that Miles Davis did not pen “Four,” but rather it was tenor saxophonist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. While this 1988 review in the Los Angeles Times suggests that Vinson was well-versed in Dameron’s songbook, I have not been able to find evidence of any collaborations between Vinson and Dameron. This predicament has halted my investigation for now.

As Pablo Picasso said, “good artists copy; great artists steal.” However, even this quote’s origins are disputed. Incorporating quotes of other works into the improvisational and compositional processes have been a foundational element of jazz since the beginning, so a scenario such as this one is no surprise, yet it still sparks my curiosity. If Dameron, Davis, and Vinson “could see me now” writing these speculations, I wonder how they would respond.

Jitterbug Waltz

I have an affinity for the Great American Songbook. To clarify, the Great American Songbook is not a literal book (though there are compilations of tunes from the repertoire such as the infamous Real Books, which usually also include jazz and sometimes rock tunes) but rather a phrase commonly used to refer to the popular American music of the 1920s-1950s from Broadway shows and Hollywood movies. Sometimes the Songbook gets a bad rap, usually because there are tunes that have cheesy lyrics or pedestrian melodies. However, there was also a lot of masterful music produced in this era by the likes of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, and others. While I enjoy the vast majority of the repertoire, there are some songs that resonate with me deeply. I recently wrote about my obsession with Vincent Youman’s “I Know That You Know” and had fun with the process of diving deep into a tune I felt passionate about. Here I will do the same thing, but with Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz.”


I was first introduced to this tune by my late mentor Bobby Jackson. I was captivated right away by the grand opening motive. I was also amazed by how bluesy the song was, yet it was not a blues in form. I discovered that this sound I was hearing was what is now my favorite chord, the IV7 chord, which is also a sound I heard over and over again in the music of Duke Ellington (one of countless examples being “Come Sunday”) but did not know what it was until years later.

“Jitterbug Waltz” was written in 1942 by pianist/composer/entertainer Thomas “Fats” Waller. He was inspired to write it by a piano exercise his young son was practicing at the time. While he had not recorded on it for decades, Waller chose the Hammond B3 organ for the first recording of this tune.

Thomas “Fats” Waller first recording “Jitterbug Waltz” on B3 organ.

Vocalist Dinah Washington recorded “Jitterbug Waltz” in 1957 with lyrics by Charles R. Grean and Maxine Manners. Jazzstandards.com (a website I have learned a lot from over the years) says the lyrics describe the waltz dance. While Washington’s performance was great and the arrangement compelling in its own quirky way, I was disappointed in the cheesy lyrics, which, as mentioned in the introduction, is a common generalization about the Great American Songbook.

Dinah Washington sings “Jitterbug Waltz”

Thankfully, the lyric debacle was rectified in 1978 by Broadway director Richard Maltby, Jr. for the musical Ain’t Misbehavin (later renamed Hot Chocolates) which detailed Waller’s life. The new lyrics describe a pair of dancers waltz through their tiredness late into the night.

The night is getting on, the band is getting show
The crowd is almost gone and here we are still dancin’
Nothing to do but waltz
Our feet can barely move, my legs are yellin'”Whoa”
But we’re in such a groove that love is still advancin’
Nothing to do but waltz
You can’t suggest that we could go on Jitterbuggin’
We’ve nothing left for moves more strenuous than huggin’
But we don’t need much room to gently cut a rug in we twoI’m tired and out of juice and yet from head to toe
My body’s feeling loose and warm and kind of supple
Nothing to do but waltz
The minutes slip away, my arms just won’t let go
I think I’d like to stay ’til we’re the only couple
Nothing to do but waltz
You never know how far this sort of thing will get you
We’re not as tired as we would like to think, I bet you
You’d stay up half the night with me if I would let you
So come let the waltz play again

Abbey Lincoln and Hank Jones recorded a stunning duo take in 1992 using the new lyrics.

Abbey Lincoln and Hank Jones on “Jitterbug Waltz” with the 1978 lyrics

Cécile McLorin Salvant recorded a dreamy, sensual take of “Jitterbug Waltz” with pianist Aaron Diehl on her 2013 Grammy nominated album WomanChild. This was the first version I heard with a vocalist, thanks to Bobby Jackson, and it has stayed in my listening rotation ever since.

Cécile McLorin Salvant and Aaron Diehl on “Jitterbug Waltz”

These 1978 lyrics have become the predominant ones for “Jitterbug Waltz.” I could not find the original lyrics online. Even when I searched specifically for Dinah Washington’s lyrics, I was only directed to the new lyrics, though I have not been able to find Washington ever recording a version with them.

While I have spent a great deal of time discussing the lyrics, “Jitterbug Waltz” is most commonly played as an instrumental tune because of its difficult leaping melody line at the beginning. Here are some instrumental versions I enjoy. There are many others, too many for me to list here. Is your favorite take of “Jitterbug Waltz” here?

from Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s 1973 Bright Moments
Eric Dolphy waltzing on the flute
another take featuring Dolphy on the legendary live Charles Mingus album at Cornell
an inventive arrangement by Michel Legrand
Zoot Sims swinging hard with a wonderful “warm” tone
Dizzy Gillespie’s take on “Jitterbug Waltz”
Art Tatum bringing his virtuosity and harmonic inventiveness to this tune
Vince Guaraldi, famous of the music of the cartoonThe Peanuts, tearing it up on “Jitterbug Waltz”
Chick Corea bringing some fresh ideas into this vintage tune
Herbie Hancock adding some exciting metric modulations (check out Michel Legrand’s arrangement for this as well)
Erroll Garner offers a lush, slow rendition of “Jitterbug Waltz”
Frank Foster dazzles with a Trane-inspired solo

Meet the Gellers

Sometimes it can be a struggle to put on some new music. I find a lot of comfort in listening to my favorite albums over and over again. While I do deepen my understanding and appreciation of this music when I listen to it again, it is important to be exposed to more artists. I am really thankful one of my incredible mentors Allan Chase (who has his own amazing blog) introduced me to the music of Lorraine and Herb Geller.

Pianist Lorraine Geller (1928-1958) was born in Portland, Oregon. From 1949 to 1952, she played with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm led by Anna Mae Winburn. She played with many legendary West Coast jazz artists including Zoot Sims and Stan Getz.

Alto saxophonist Herb Geller (1928-2013) was born in Los Angeles, California. He attended Dorsey High School long with saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Vi Redd. Herb worked with Billy May’s and Claude Thornhill’s orchestras in New York.

In 1949, Lorraine and Herb met at a Los Angeles jam session. They married in 1952. The Gellers were vital contributors to the West Coast jazz scene of the 1950s and played with the likes of Jimmy Giuffre, Bud Shank, and others live and in the studio.

Lorraine was diagnosed with asthma prior to giving birth to her daughter, Lisa. The birth took a toll on Lorraine’s health and shortly after she suffered pulmonary edema and an asthma attack, tragically passing away at the age of 30.

Lorraine only recorded one album as a leader entitled At the Piano, released a year following her untimely passing. It is a gem, a sampling of the soundscape of a burgeoning artist gone too soon.

Lorraine Geller’s sole album as a leader

The couple recorded together as well. They cut a record aptly titled The Gellers which I have been listening to obsessively for the past week or so. The tunes, a mixture of standards and originals, are catchy yet find ways to surprise and delight the listener. The music feels effortless, even on the burning opening number “Araphoe,” a contrafact over the Ray Noble classic “Cherokee” (first made famous as the theme for the Charlie Barnet band but then became a bebop anthem with the rise of Charlie Parker). I found myself taking particular interest in “I’ve Got A Feeling I’m Falling” for its driving swing and nuanced arrangement.

a playlist of the masterful collaboration between the Gellers

I look forward to further exploring the music of the Gellers and their affiliates. Their music has been a gateway for me to learning more about the West Coast jazz stylings, an area in which I would like to be better versed. What do you think about the Gellers’ music and story?


Sources

Summer Reading List 2019

Reading about jazz was a passion of mine from a young age. Unfortunately, this facet of my fascination with the music took a backseat during my undergraduate studies, but it’s back in full swing (ha)! Here’s what I read this summer. What did you check out?

Morning Glory, Linda Dahl

Mary Lou Williams’ story is an inspiring one. It was moving to read about how she used the adversities she faced not as excuses for failure but fuel for success. I was particularly amazed by how she went from being solely reliant on her ears to becoming one of the most admired arrangers of her time. I can’t recommend this book enough. It was a powerful read.

Find it here.

Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Davis

Davis’s book focuses on Bessie Smith, Gertrude Ma Rainey, and Billie Holiday. I listened to Holiday extensively during my early development as a musician, only being able to understand so much about the very mature topics she often sang about. Davis helped me to understand the repertoire of these blues singers in a whole new light, contextualizing their work with the times they lived in. While the book is short page-wise, it is written for a more academic audience, making it a time-consuming and enlightening read.

Find it here.

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, John Szwed

As previously mentioned, Billie Holiday was a very important influence for me when I first became interested in jazz (and still is). What I really appreciated about this book was Szwed’s effort in bringing back Billie’s humanity and dignity. So often discussions and literature about her focus on her traumatic past, drug usage, and trouble with the law, leaving very little space to discuss her art and who she really was.

Find it here.

Lady Sings the Blues, Billie Holiday and William Dufty

I have been meaning to read this for so long and am so glad I finally did. This book is notoriously scrutinized for its questionable truthfulness. However, and perhaps Szwed’s book helped me to see this way, that did not bother me. I found it incredibly moving to read Billie’s story the way she felt it. For my purposes, it did not matter if some dates didn’t line up or if she remembered an event differently than others. Reading this book felt like she was speaking directly to me, and I know others have shared this same experience.

Find it here.

Beneath the Underdog, Charles Mingus

Another classic memoir… This book is discussed a lot, however, it seems like not a lot of people actually read it and just talk about the very inflammatory parts. If you are looking to find out detailed information about Mingus’s life, career, etc., this is not that book. However, I thought it masterfully showcased his creativity in a new medium – writing. I do hope that much of the contents of the book are fictional, but we may never know how much is true.

Find it here.

A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty, Gunther Schuller (in progress)

As an entering student at New England Conservatory, I thought it was crucial for me to learn more about Gunther Schuller. As NEC’s president, Schuller founded the Jazz Studies and Third Stream (now Contemporary Improvisation) departments. I wrote a paper about him this past spring and read segments of his autobiography in my research. Now, I am committed to reading the massive work in its entirety.

Find it here.

Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews, Arthur Taylor

This book features short interviews with a who’s who list of jazz musicians. These interviews are particularly candid because drummer Art Taylor was conducting them, making the artists feel more at ease talking to a peer. He asked the artists to recall their relationship with Bird and Bud Powell, their thoughts on the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and how they felt about the use of technology in music. I found their answers to be nuanced and thought-provoking.

Find it here.

Madame Jazz, Leslie Gourse (in progress)

This book is near and dear to me because my copy once belonged to my beloved late teacher Bobby Jackson. I deeply wish we could talk about it together. This book profiles female artists in various stages of their careers in the early 1990s. Some of the women just starting out in the book are now seasoned professionals. Some of the more established women have now gone into obscurity. It is difficult to read about some of the barriers these women faced to achieve all they did. As I read this book, I am in awe of them and aspire to continue their legacies.

I have started a Women in Jazz Directory on my website, which includes a list of musicians, industry members, and ensembles. This book has been incredibly helpful in expanding my list.

Find it here.

Willene Barton: An Overlooked Link in the Big Three Tenor Legacy

As you may know, I created and maintain a Women in Jazz Directory, which includes the most comprehensive (and ever-growing) list of past and active women in jazz that I have been able to find on the internet or elsewhere. I created this resource because it is something I wish I would have had earlier in my development when I was first becoming conscious of how my gender influenced the way potential colleagues, mentors, and other industry members would see me. My hope is for this tool to be empowering and educational, to show other women that this can – and has – been done by women many times over, even if they don’t want to admit it in jazz history class.

I first read about tenor saxophonist Willene Barton in the book Madame Jazz (Leslie Gourse). I was compelled to learn more about her and found what little information I could.

Willene Barton (1928-2005?) was born in Oscilla, Georgia and later moved with her family to New York City where she taught herself to play the saxophone. She played primarily with all-women groups including The Coronians and groups led by former members of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. There seems to be some discrepancy about whether she was ever a member of the Sweethearts or if they had disbanded by the time she was on the scene. Barton particularly looked up to tenor saxophonists Vi Burnside, who had made her career with the Sweethearts.

When listening to Barton, I am strongly reminded of the husky, growling sounds of saxophonists Ben Webster and Illinois Jacquet. Ironically, after reading the information I could find, it appears she played with them, along with others including Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons. Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis managed her career for a time. It is a wonder how someone so well-connected has been left out of the retelling of this lineage.

While Barton’s discography is not extensive, her entire album There She Blows! is available on YouTube. (I have not been able to figure out why the album cover has her on alto even though I can only find recordings of her on tenor.)

I also found this wonderful live performance as part of a Spanish program about women in jazz. (Starts at 13:25)

Here is her single “Rice Pudding,” more in the rhythm and blues vein.

I was also able to find record of Barton collaborating with trombonist/composer/arranger Melba Liston, who has, along with Mary Lou Williams, posthumously become an icon for the women in jazz movement that was reignited by the larger #MeToo movement. They organized a group to play at the 1981 Kool Jazz Festival.

One of my dreams is to live to see women written back into jazz history. We have been here all along. It is time to shine light on these artists, not relegated to a special section in the back of the book for the women, or even worse, completely left out. After reading this, I hope you agree that Willene Barton’s name could easily go alongside those of whom she played with, and deserves to be there.

Sources

I Know That You Know

I love jazz standards. I especially love finding great tunes that have somehow escaped the common repertoire (though tunes do cycle in and out of popularity). To celebrate my first gig as a bandleader in Boston, I thought it would be fun to profile one such tune that we will be performing tonight entitled “I Know That You Know.”

The website JazzStandards.com provides great background on the tune:

“I Know That You Know,” composed by Vincent Youmans with a lyric by Anne Caldwell (also known as Anne Caldwell O’Dea), was introduced by Beatrice Lillie in the 1926 Broadway musical  Oh, Please!  … Although the show ran for only 75 performances, the song rose to number five on the charts in 1927, performed by Nat Shilkret and the Victor Orchestra. The Benny Goodman Orchestra revived it in 1936 and took it to number 14 on the charts.

JazzStandards.com

This tune was on a couple albums I really enjoy but for some reason it did not stick out to me when I first heard it. It wasn’t until being introduced to Jimmie Noone’s version during Survey of Woodwinds Styles class that I was completely captivated. Between the great arrangement, the sweet tone of the alto saxophone on the melody, and Noone’s virtuosic obligato, I was obsessed. I have probably listened to this version well over 100 times at this point:

Years later, I found another take by Noone:

These are the two versions that I had already heard prior to realizing the splendor of this simple tune. In retrospect, they are absolutely amazing.

Nat King Cole takes it very up-tempo. I love his phrasing on the melody, especially how he sometimes pulls back against the time:

The infamous Sonny Side Up rendition, while great, somewhat obscures the melody with the heavy tenor counterpoint, which is perhaps why I did not realize this was the same tune at first. I love how the two Sonnys express their different musical personalities on this tune (and the rest of the album):

I was thrilled to find out that Sonny Stitt recorded this tune on alto:

Twice! (maybe more?):

My jaw dropped upon first hearing this stunning take by Art Tatum. His use of the whole-tone scale is particularly jarring as are his metric modulations:

And then I discovered “I Know That You Know” made some appearances in film. Here is a fun take from Tea For Two (1950). I love the incorporation of tap dancing in the performance of the tune. While there is some dated dialogue at the end of the clip, I think it is still worth a watch (or 50 if you are like me):

I then found this clip from Hit the Deck (1955). It includes a verse, and I have not been able to determine if that was added for this film or if it is original to the composition. While this performance is in the theater vein rather than jazz, I appreciate the way the delivery of the lyrics changes their meaning:

The lyrics to the tune seem pretty consistent between all the vocal versions:

I know that you know
That I’ll go where you go
I choose you, won’t lose you
I wish you knew how much I long
To hold you in my arms

This time is my time
Will soon be goodbye time
Then in the star light, hold me tight
With one more little kiss
Say, nighty night

They do not hold much substance, and while they are sweet, are not what attracts me to this tune. I think it is the unusual accenting of the 4th beat, along with the contrast elements of the melody with the first half being stagnant and the second half with a lot of motion, that keep me so invested in this song.

What do you think of this tune? Is there another version I should check out? Which tunes are you so crazy about that you have to scour the internet for every version you can find? Let me know!

Freddy Martin: My New Hometown Hero

One of my life’s passions is studying jazz history, as well as interplay of jazz’s evolution with that of American culture. I am trying to use my blog as a space for my musings rather than filling up everyone’s Facebook feeds. I hope you find this content interesting and that it shows another side of my musicianship, that of the researcher.


I am always thrilled to discover artists from my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland has a rich history of producing great jazz musicians, so it was no surprise for me to come across yet another interesting character, saxophonist and bandleader Freddy Martin. While Martin allegedly did not consider himself to be a jazz musician, he was influential in the swing era and inspired some of the greatest jazz saxophonists of all time. Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington’s long-time lead alto player (and my favorite saxophonist) gave Martin the nickname “Mr. Silvertone,” in admiration of his sweet sound. Legendary tenor player Chu Berry once cited Martin as his favorite saxophonist.

Upon first listening to Freddy Martin, the sweet tone for which he was praised was so evident. I am nostalgic for (if that is even possible, since I was not alive during this time) a return to the “sweet” sound of the swing era. The warm, lyrical quality of his playing is refreshing in comparison to the straight tone and busy playing in vogue now.

Another interesting aspect of Freddy Martin’s band is the repertoire, which included several classical pieces adapted to a dance band style. The most famous of these is “Tonight We Love,” adapted from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 23. Compare the two side-by-side.

The original Tchaikovsky

The Freddy Martin Rendition
(from the movie Mayor of 44th Street, the only video I have been able to find of Martin performing “live.”)

I was surprised to see hear this cross-genre work happening at such an early date (the film was released in 1942, so the arrangement was likely written even earlier than that). I often associate this type of experimentation with the Third Stream movement, spearheaded by Gunther Schuller (who founded the jazz studies department at New England Conservatory, where I will begin studying in a few short weeks). I also think of Duke Ellington and his adaptations of classical works for jazz orchestra (Peer Gynt Suite, and perhaps most famously, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite).

Ironically, Freddy Martin released his own rendition of the Nutcracker Suite (arranged by Ray Austin), 18 years before the infamous Ellington/Strayhorn arrangements! Check out these takes on the March.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1892)

Freddy Martin (1942)

Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn (1960)

This leaves me with so many questions! Was Ellington aware of the Martin recording? Was Martin’s embrace of classical repertoire an inspiration to Ellington, as Martin’s saxophone playing was an inspiration to Hodges? Did Martin and Schuller ever have any dialogue? Hopefully, with some more digging around, I can unearth some more answers.

Sources
Freddy Martin Obituary, New York Times
Freddy Martin, Encyclopedia.com
Freddie Martin, Solid!