Who Is Ella Fitzgerald?

who is ella fitzgerald

First Lady Of Song

Beautiful, talented, innovative, angelic, and inspirational are just a few of the words that have been used to describe Ella Fitzgerald’s trademark voice and novel singing ability.

Ella’s music and singing style was very reflective of her general personality; bubbly, vibrant, and humble yet not passive enough to be overlooked entirely. Her list of accomplishments and accolades are vast, yet still somehow fall short of accurately encompassing her full impact and contribution to jazz as well as African Americans and women in the field of jazz and music at large.

who is ella fitzgerald

Background

Born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1917, it’s hard to believe that Ella could’ve developed such a beautiful and humble personality and world outlook despite the early tragedy that befell her. Her chaotic childhood began when her parents separated shortly after her birth.

After the divorce of her birth parents, Ella was relocated to Yonkers, New York, by her mother where she lived with her mother’s boyfriend and her younger half-sibling that came as a product of that relationship.1

young ella fitzgerald 1938

Tragedy

Sadly, Ella Fitzgerald’s mother died in a car accident in 1932, after she was relocated to New York, followed by the deaths of her step-father Joseph Da Silva and her half-sister Frances.2 As many close to her recall, this was a very dark period in the life of Ella Fitzgerald. She ended up in reform school a few times around her mid-teenage years due to misbehavior, no doubt as a result of the extreme inner emotional turmoil that she was combatting after facing so many devastating losses in such a short period of time.

Although Ella never publicly spoke about this period of her life, it served as a prequel to a phenomenal story of triumph and perseverance. It is rumored that Ella Fitzgerald was actually homeless during the time that she got her ‘big break’ in 1934 at Apollo’s amateur night.3

Here she is in 1948, wowing both The Duke himself Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman to his right.

ella fitzgerald at the apollo 1948

New Face

Although in 1938 she was new face and unknown at the beginning of the competition, she left that night the talk of the town and the buzz about her magical musical performance was an accurate premonition of things to come for the young Ella Fitzgerald. Shortly thereafter, Ella entered many more talent shows and virtually won every single one that she entered into.

All of her success eventually drew the attention of Chick Webb and scored her a long-term gig singing with his famous band. As a member of his band, she was signed to the ‘Decca’ label and produced a few hits while there, however, she did not yet strike any major success.

Still, this is not to say that Ella did not receive overwhelming praise and love everywhere she performed, ‘wowing’ crowds across the United States among various demographics and venues. Her talent was simply undeniable.

During the time she was in Chick Webb’s band, the swing era was just beginning to gain steam and Ella, of course, was a master at the swing. Known as the ‘Queen of Swing,’ many said that it seemed as though Ella was born with the ‘swing gene’. It was during this period that Ella began to engineer and perfect her ever famous scat singing style.  Here she is later on, having perfected the style.

Back then, at just the age of 21, she scored her breakout single with her famous jazz rendition of the song ‘Tisket Tasket’. Her adorable persona coupled with her happy-go-lucky, jovial personality and tender, infectiously beautiful voice won audiences across America. After the song and subsequent video were released, Ella rocketed to the top of the charts and remained there for ten consecutive weeks, effectively making her a ‘star’.4  Ella effectively followed this record with another smash record ‘Undecided,’ which solidified her stake as one of the foremost Jazz singers at the time.5 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziyEcJleVBQ

Band Leader

Around the time of her roaring success, Chick Webb had passed away. Being her mentor and band leader at the time, this left a huge void in Ella’s personal life and career. However, instead of letting his untimely passing deter her or derail her career, she stepped up and took on role of band leader and was highly successful at it. She held this role until the start of World War 2, when most of the band members were drafted, and recorded nearly 200 songs during her tenure.6  During this time, she gained much critical acclaim and notoriety in the jazz world and rubbed shoulders with legends by the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and others.

dizzy and ella

Flying Home

After Chick Webb’s former band had disbanded, Ella made what could possibly be considered her greatest hit to date with her rendition of the song called, ‘Flying Home’. It featured her famous scat singing and made the style of jazz improvisation a legitimate and popular technique that became etched in music history; no small feat. The song was such a smash hit that the New York Times referred to it as ‘one of the most influential vocal jazz records of the decade’.

All Time

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Ella received no shortage of awards over her musical career. She set historical precedent by becoming the first African American female to ever receive a Grammy and she didn’t do it just once. She won fourteen Grammy awards and was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as a musician. She has multiple honorary doctorates from schools such as; Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Howard and Princeton. By many standards, she is considered to be one of the greatest singers of all time in any genre, and perhaps the best in the 20th century entirely.

ella fitzgerald and marilyn monroe

It’s impossible to talk about Jazz greats and not include Ella’s name in the conversation. Specifically, when we talk about singers in the field of jazz, there may be none more influential than Ella Fitzgerald, and she certainly was the undisputed pioneer and architect of jazz vocals for both genders and all races and creeds that followed after her recording days were long over.

For as long as we discuss jazz and music in general, Ella Fitzgerald will have a permanent seat at the table as one of the figures that must be mentioned in order to accurately chronologize and archive its history.

Sources:

  1. http://www.biography.com/people/ella-fitzgerald-9296210#synopsis 
  2. http://www.ellafitzgerald.com/about/
  3. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/ella-fitzgerald-mn0000184502/biography
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8C67gnApLs
  5. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/ella-fitzgerald-something-to-live-for/590/
  6. http://www.manythings.org/voa/people/Ella_Fitzgerald.html 
  7. Holden, Stephen (June 16, 1996). “Ella Fitzgerald, the Voice of Jazz, Dies at 79”. The New York Times.

Who Is Count Basie?

count basie

Count Basie is another extremely influential jazz musician and big band leader that left a permanent imprint on the genre.  Before we say another word about who he is and why he’s important, let’s kick things off with “One O’Clock Jump” and get ourselves in the mood for a little bit of Basie.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08jyOwx96Ig

Background

Born in the early 1900’s (1904) in Red Bank, New Jersey, with the name of William James Basie, he became the prototypical jazz musician. Basie displayed extraordinary musical skill at a very early age and eventually took his act on the road, touring all around the United States and eventually going overseas. In many ways, he established the formula that many other subsequent jazz artists duplicated on their path to success. Going down in history as the ‘King of Swing,’ Count Basie’s accomplishments and contributions to the field of jazz are now firmly enshrined in legend. 

count basie king of swing

A Natural

As mentioned above, Count Basie’s musical prowess was obvious from a very early age, with him beginning to acquire gigs and esteem as early as age 16. What makes this feat even more phenomenal was that the likelihood of someone in his position developing this level of skill or success was slim to none. Growing up poor, his parents used what little money they had to spare to purchase piano lessons for him. Fortunately, their investment paid off as his natural skill, aptitude, and ability to replicate songs by ear using perfect pitch allowed him to excel at the piano with minimal formal training.1

Interestingly enough, Basie was not always focused on the piano. The first instrument that his parents invested in for him was actually a set of drums. When asked how his love for the piano manifested, Basie identified his experiences attending the Lyric Theatre as a child as the catalyst for his interest in piano. Rumor also has it that Basie once heard Sonny Greer on drums and immediately made the transition from drums to piano because he felt he was already so inferior in playing ability to Sonny that there would be no way that he could ‘catch up’.2 Regardless of the origin of Count Basie’s piano playing, it appears he made a stellar decision because he was able to leverage his talent to secure several professional gigs when he was just a teenager. Coming from a poor family, Count Basie was dedicated to developing his craft with the intentions of using the proceeds he gained from his musical gigs to elevate his parent’s financial situation. This no doubt provided a helpful incentive for him to continue to develop his abilities.

william count basie

In the early 30’s, Basie worked primarily as a soloist and traveled with various big bands as a fill-in or guest feature. Following the death of Bennie Moten in 1935, leader of one of the bands that Basie frequently played with at the time, Basie’s career trajectory permanently changed when he succeeded him as band leader. The band, called ‘Barons of Rhythm,’ served as the official starting point for the career of ‘Count Basie’ as he was not referred to as such until he took on this role.3

Rise To Fame

From this point moving forward, Basie’s popularity exploded. This was due, in part, to the radio exposure that his band began to receive after his band had gained recognition for their performance at the ‘Reno Club,’ located in Kansas City. Once on the radio, Basie was able to attract the attention of record producer John Hammond in 1938, whom propelled his career even further from there. Based in Kansas City and known for discovering and promoting ‘undiscovered’ talent, John Hammond felt that Count Basie was exactly what the world was missing in Jazz. After discovering him randomly as he was surfing through radio channels, he reached out directly to Count Basie to urge him to move back to the East Coast of the United States.4

King Of Swing

Many theorize that during this period of time (late 30’s and early 40’s) Basie’s band was one of the most successful African American bands and bands at large in America, placing only second to the legendary Duke Ellington’s big band in the genre of jazz.5

Through a combination of great leadership and prolific playing, the band was able to continue their path of success, playing at many big city hotels and reputable venues all across the nation. In essence, Count Basie’s band was the quintessential swing band of the Swing Era. This title is akin to being known as the peak Rock star in the 80’s when rock was the most popular genre. A band like Led Zeppelin would be a great parallel.

king of swing

Yet despite the overwhelming success Basie experienced, his rise was far from linear. The death and defection of key band members threatened to derail his campaign entirely during the late 30’s. Basie’s band and recruiting abilities were also stifled by the military draft that was enacted during the early ‘40’s in the United States.

Strike

As if all this were not enough adversity to overcome, there was also a musicians’ strike that effectively amounted to a wartime recording ban during that same decade which lasted for approximately three years (1942-1944). The strike was predicated on the idea that musicians were not being justly compensated for their efforts because many record companies refused to pay individual musicians royalties for the distribution of their music through various channels.

basie-splsh

As a result of all the aforementioned setbacks, the Big Band era began to dissipate towards the end of the decade and Basie was forced to reassess which direction he wished to take his musical career, if at all. Thus, in the 50’s, Basie decided to try his hand at smaller band arrangements. After a period of moderate success, he reverted back to his former ways and made the decision to enlist a big band again.

Vision

Fortunately, he was able to experience many glimpses of his prior success once he made this transition towards the end of the 50’s. The improvement in circumstances culturally and musically during this era in American history in comparison to the previous decade also allowed him to continue uninhibited in a way he couldn’t prior. Nearing the end of his career, Basie continued to develop his big band and his musical vision until he passed in 1984, leaving behind a profound legacy that has undoubtedly stood the test of time.

count_basie_playing_organ

Phenomenal Arranger

Although Basie was not a composer in the same way as Duke Ellington, he had plenty of creative control over the band’s direction. Basie was able to attract the bulk amount of his popularity and critical acclaim because of his phenomenal arrangements of already existing jazz songs. For those unfamiliar with this concept, arrangements are basically a different take on a song. This can be done through tempo changes, altering the bridge, chords, or other melodic and musical aspects of the song in some way.

His exceptional ability compose such amazing arrangements one of the critical parts that allowed his legacy to live on for such an extended period of time. Much of the sheet music he created for his various arrangements is still in circulation today and is frequently used more often than the original arrangement of many jazz songs, making it the ‘default’.

Standard

His ability to aggregate musically gifted individuals together to serve various roles in his band cannot be overlooked either. Part of what made his arrangements as riveting and beautiful as they were was the prevalence of amazing musicians in his bands at all time. Basie never played with anything but the best and his own extraordinarily talent served as a profound supplement.

When all is said and done, you simply can’t talk about Big Band Jazz without mentioning Count Basie.

Sources:

  1. http://countbasie.com/?page_id=2211
  2. http://www.countbasietheatre.org/about/williambio.asp
  3. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/count-basie-mn0000127044/biography
  4. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/john-hammond-sr-mn0000082997/biography
  5. http://www.encyclopedia.com/people/literature-and-arts/music-popular-and-Jazz-biographies/count-basie

Why Is Thelonious Monk Important?

thelonious monk at mintons

Another very noteworthy and prominent composer that left an indelible mark on the history of Jazz throughout the years was Thelonius Monk. His legacy in the genre is indisputable, influencing jazz artists, sounds, and improvisations even to this day.

Let’s kick things off with a bit of Monk with “Don’t Blame Me” from back in 1966.

Thelonious Monk Background

Born in October of 1917, Thelonious Monk was exposed to the world of music at an early age, training on classical piano playing at just the age of eleven.1 Thelonious Monk’s piano training  and lessons would serve as an important catalyst to kick start the rest of his prolific career. Even at the start of his playing career, it was obvious that Thelonious Monk would be a gifted musician. He reported in interviews that he was able to teach himself how to play the piano and read music as well by observing his sister. Thelonious Monk’s family, fortunately, recognized his aptitude and passion for music and saved up their money to invest in a miniature grand piano of his own that he could use to further advance his skills.2

young thelonious monk

Growing up in New York City, Thelonious Monk was birthed in the perfect location to cultivate his musical prowess. His began his career touring as an accompanying musician to an evangelist in his early teens.3 Following this gig, Thelonious moved on to become the piano player for ‘Minton’s Playhouse’, which was a night club based in Manhattan. It was here that Thelonious was able to truly develop his skills as a jazz player and craft his song as the opportunity allowed him to rub elbows with some of the other most prominent figures in jazz such as; Charlie Parker, Dizzy, and Miles Davis among others.

thelonious monk at mintons

Around the mid ‘40’s, Thelonious began to make his first recordings with the Coleman Hawkins Quartet, which served as a launching point for him to inducted into the infamous Blue Note Recording Label in the late ‘40’s, which had famously housed many other notable jazz musicians and professionals. During his time at the label, Thelonious Monk was able to produce many noteworthy records that would stand the test of time.

Monk’s Chord Voicings

One of the most noteworthy features of Monk’s playing style was his use of dissonance. Those that had not heard of Monk before were often somewhat disenchanted upon first listen. To the untrained ear, it seemed as though he wasn’t playing the ‘correct notes,’ but over time it became apparent that Monk was sonically evolving the sound of jazz and expanding listener’s perceptions of what sounded ‘good’.

This dangerous maneuver of chord structure is what gave Monk his distinctiveness and tenacity in Jazz. His willingness to break convention and experiment during live recordings and performances was a gutsy move that eventually landed him much critical acclaim during the ‘40’s and ‘50’s and propelled him forward as one of the foremost names in the musical world.

However, during this period of time Thelonious was also dealing with several demons. One of the unknown facts about Thelonious Monk was that he wasn’t always financially stable. This wasn’t necessarily a result of negligence on his part, but just as a result of the fickle nature of the music business.4

Despite the critical acclaim that Monk and many other jazz legends receive, they were often extremely underpaid in comparison to the material that they provided as well as overworked. This made life excruciatingly difficult for many jazz musicians in this era. It is also important to remember that this was during an era where racism along with financial and political disenfranchisement was rampant in America, making it even more difficult for many of the more prominent earlier jazz musicians such as Thelonious Monk to escape the pit of poverty.

thelonious monk playing piano

Monk’s Demons

This, in addition, with the reported narcotics and alcohol abuse are what have been used to help paint the common picture of him as a ‘tortured artist’ or crown him with the informal superlative of ‘Mad Monk’.

But these titles don’t do Thelonious Monk justice at all. We commonly would love to believe that jazz artists were these inebriated geniuses that could only cope with the thrusts and difficulties of this world through mind-altering substances. Yet with Monk, something a little deeper was amiss. After much research by contemporary historians and biographers, it was discovered that he suffered from bipolar disorder. Those unfamiliar with the disorder may not be aware of the profound crippling effects that this disorder can have on its victims.

thelonious monk time magazine

While those afflicted with the disease tend to be dispositioned towards the musical, talented, and intellectually gifted, they are also frequently misunderstood and ostracized due to their inexplicable condition. This was most likely even more so the case during Thelonious Monk’s time in the 40’s through 60’s, when substantially less was known about the disease than present times. As a result, many folks that knew Monk during that era and were aware of his erratic behavior often dismissed it as ‘Monk being Monk’.5

Therefore, when put in the context of this disorder and anecdotes from close family and friends, it seems that Monk’s substance use was more attributable to him attempting to self-medicate the illness rather than induce intoxication for pure recreational purposes – although that surely played somewhat of a role as well.

Monk’s Talent

With this knowledge, it begs the question of whether this illness was a contributing factor to Monk being who he was. It has often been theorized in popular culture that mental illnesses in prominent artists and individuals are ‘responsible’ for their genius in some way. While many psychiatrists and professionals usually dismiss this for fear of romanticizing mental illness, a few disagree. The research that correlates bipolar disorder among other mental illnesses with creativity, general talent, and aptitude for various things is indisputable. However, there is no telling what Monk would have been without his illness. Neither Bipolar Disorder or any other mental illness is responsible for particular passions that one has. Being born in an environment that greatly facilitated his musical creativity, it is no coincidence that he became the famous musician that he currently is.

thenlonious smoking

Fortunately, Monk’s wife Nellie and his family were generally supportive of him despite his eccentricities and did not leave his side at all – another crucial aspect of his success. His family was largely able to steer Monk away from some of the more extreme treatments that were recommended to him, such as electroconvulsive therapy. However, in what could probably be attributed to the primitive knowledge of psychiatric disorders at the time, it is theorized that Monk was still often misdiagnosed which led to the prescribing of inappropriate medications that often further deteriorated his health and had substantially more adverse effects upon him than positive.

Watch this great documentary, “Straight, No Chaser”.  You’ll learn a fair bit about Monk from it, and it gives you a very intriguing portrait of the man.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s2z67tTQIvI&list=PL7B932510F1573250

Monk’s Last Years

The last few years of Thelonious Monk’s life were somewhat sad in nature. He did not speak much to either family or close colleagues, leading some to attribute the change in behavior to the anti-psychotic medication that he was taking at the time.

thelonious monk walking on the pier

Thelonious eventually passed away in the early ‘80s after concluding his musical career with a relatively large amount of inactivity in the 70’s. Yet despite the mental and financial troubles that Monk struggled to overcome during his life, he still left a legacy that will live forever within the genre of jazz. He was given many awards posthumously, including the ‘Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award’ and ‘Pulitzer Prize’.

Many of the standards that he created during the peak of his musical career are still played in revered in many jazz circles and his playing style is one that had an influence on countless pianists for decades to follow. His family has also done an excellent job ‘carrying the torch,’ so to speak, creating different foundations and institutions like the ‘Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz’ to help further jazz education and teachings.

Through the good and bad, it cannot be denied that Thelonious Monk was one of the most spectacular jazz players and composers the genre has ever seen.

thelonious

Sources:

  1. http://www.biography.com/people/thelonious-monk-9411896
  2. http://www.notablebiographies.com/Mo-Ni/Monk-Thelonious.html
  3. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/thelonious-monk-mn0000490416/biography
  4. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/03/the-secret-life-of-thelonious-monk/38128/
  5. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-road-lizzie-simon/201003/thelonious-monk-bebop-pioneer-and-bipolar-my-interview-professor

Monday Nights At Minton’s And The Birth Of Bebop

mintons_playhouse1

When Henry Minton began hosting Monday night jam sessions at his night club in Harlem, no one could have foreseen the groundbreaking and experimental genius that would forever change the art of jazz.

mintons jazz club harlem

Minton’s Playhouse was established in 1938, a time during which the towering giants of the swing era were at their fullest strength. An established and esteemed generation of swing musicians—including Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Christian, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, and Don Byas—would make regular guest appearances at Minton’s. Already in incredible form, these musicians would duel and push the limits of improvisation, while a crowd of eager young musicians watched reverently and wide-eyed from the audience.

Among these aspiring young musicians were future masters who would grow to dominate the jazz scene of the late 40s and onward. Art Blakely, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Fats Navarro, and Dexter Gordon were among the many who stood up and put their skills to the test at Minton’s. Also in the crowd—before his name became synonymous with the essence of cool jazz—was a young Miles Davis, eagerly absorbing the sounds of his idols.

birth of bebop

Minton’s forged a new era of musicianship, in which the conventional boundaries of jazz music were pushed past their apex. On Monday nights, in an environment where the experienced and experimental mixed, clashed, and battled—a new style of jazz was born.

The Birth of Bebop

Bebop music marks a transition from the swing standards of the early to late 30s, to a period of deepening musicianship and virtuosity. The musicians who pioneered bebop were constantly driving the tempo higher, adding more complex chord changes, working with more complicated scales, and challenging themselves to break new musical ground. Bebop became interested in moving jazz outside of swing dance halls and into an entirely new creative stratum.

The members of the house band at Minton’s were the foremost of these explorers and pioneers. The rhythm section alone consisted of Thelonious Monk on piano, Kenny Clarke on set, Nick Fenton on bass, and Charlie Christian on electric guitar. Leading and dominating the developing bebop scene were Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie—affectionately known as Bird and Diz.

monk at mintons harlem jazz bebop

In his 1989 autobiography, Miles Davis recalls those revolutionary jam sessions at Minton’s: “Bird and Dizzy would come in to jam… but most of the musicians in the know didn’t even think about playing when Bird and Dizzy came to jam. We would just sit out in the audience, to listen and learn.”

How did these musicians push the envelope of creative expression? Each of them participated in an intellectual and internalized mode of expression, abandoning the traditional roles of the entertainer and the performer. At its core, bebop was “musician’s music,” and its adherents lived outside of the popular, public conception of jazz music.

The development of bebop was a collective effort, but the unsung hero and earliest innovator among the Minton’s house band was Charlie Christian.

Here’s a classic cut of Charlie Christian playing “Stompin’ At The Savoy” live at Minton’s in 1941.

The electric guitar player enjoyed a short career with the Benny Goodman Sextet and Orchestra, and his reputation as one of the supreme improvisational talents of the swing era was even more significant given that he was among the first to play guitar as a lead instrument.  Like all musicians who frequented Minton’s, Christian was interested in redefining what his instrument was capable of, and he is largely credited with giving shape, direction, and name to the bebop movement.

charlie christian live at mintons

Christian died prematurely, leaving behind only a few recordings of his monumental talent. Minton’s and its musicians, however, would go on to further innovate and drive bebop forward.

In remembering the giants of bebop music, we should remember that the creative expression and improvised solos of those Monday nights lasted long into the night, well past the time when the rest of the world was quietly sleeping.

Visit the Minton’s website

Who Are The Best Tenor Saxophonists Of All Time? Our Top 4

coleman-hawkins-09

ed lozano

The saxophone was created in the 1840s by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian musician and inventor. And, even though it’s a relatively new instrument, as compared to the violin and the piano, the saxophone has always been associated with jazz.

old tenor sax

However, it wasn’t a very popular instrument from the outset. Brass and woodwind players didn’t like it very much and, subsequently, the saxophone wasn’t taken very seriously. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that military bands from Europe and the US began to adopt the instrument and, along with some marketing campaigns, the saxophone became known as a popular novelty instrument.

Ragtime musicians and important band leaders like Patrick Gilmore and John Philip Sousa took interest in the instrument. But, it wasn’t until the 1920s in the US that “the hot music of the day” changed the perception of the saxophone from a novelty instrument to an instrument that was capable of more colour and different sounds.

sax quintet

In fact, the instrument provided the capacity of imitating a variety of sounds while demonstrating a wide range of textures. In addition, the saxophone came in a variety of ranges from sopranino to baritone and, since the 1920s, the saxophone has been associated with jazz.

The Golden Age of the Saxophone

During the period from the late 1920s to the 1940s, the saxophone matured into the hallmark instrument of jazz. The sound of jazz as well as the legacy of the instrument lied in the hands of four classic tenors:

  1. Coleman Hawkins
  2. Ben Webster
  3. Chu Berry
  4. Lester Young

Most of the early saxophone players weren’t jazz players at all. It wasn’t until Louis Armstrong came along and, in the 1920s, changed the face of jazz. Armstrong influenced the way that jazz was played by using long and short eighth notes that were played slightly behind the beat.


Coleman Hawkins 

Coleman Randolph Hawkins (November 21, 1904 – May 19, 1969) was also nicknamed “Hawk” and sometimes “Bean”. In addition, he is sometimes referred to as “The Father of the Jazz Tenor Saxophone”.

coleman-hawkins-09

Hawk was raised in Kansas City and was a well-rounded musician. He played the piano and the cello and possessed a deep understanding of music theory.

In the early 20s, he moved to New York City and joined Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra where he met Louis Armstrong who had also joined the band. This meeting was very influential on Hawk and changed his approach to playing completely. Armstrong’s improvisational style had a tremendous impact on Hawkins’s style.

Although Hawkins was accomplished on the instrument, his musical interpretation (prior to Armstrong) was rather stiff. He used a technique called slap tonguing that (when overused) sounded, well, corny.

Hawk abandoned the stiff ragtime-style rhythm, adopted the long-short eighth notes that Armstrong introduced and his improvisations took off. He also diminished his use of slap tonguing and developed his trademark, cello-like vibrato. This new approach to the sound and inventiveness of his improvisational skills set the standard for the saxophonists that followed.

Check out Coleman Hawkins playing “Lover Man” below.

Hawkins’s health declined in the late 60s and he ultimately passed due to complications from liver disease.


Ben Webster

Benjamin Francis Webster (March 27, 1909 – September 20, 1973) was born and raised in Kansas City. During the 1930s, Coleman Hawkins spent a lot of time in Europe and had tremendous success. Back in Kansas City, sax players were lining up to take his place in the highly competitive Kansas City jazz scene. Ben Webster was one of those players.

ben francis webster

Webster took Hawkins’s ideas and was able to put his own twist to it. One of the amazing attributes regarding Ben Webster was in the variety of sounds that he brought to the instrument. He was a smooth player that could sound buttery and velvety when playing a ballad. He also possessed a beautiful vibrato. It was said that he could play the most sensual ballad known to man.

Here’s an example of Ben Webster playing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, a familiar tune but taken to new heights by way of his amazing interpretation.

Likewise, when he played an uptempo number, he could lean into the horn and create growls and raucous textures that were executed with attitude.

Check out Ben Webster performing “Perdido”.

During the late 1930s, Webster came into prominence when he joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra in what was then called the Ellington/Blanton Orchestra. Duke was known for having the best soloists in his band but he never really had a great saxophonist. When Webster was added to the band, Ellington’s band was complete and he had a hot improviser in every seat.

Webster went on to make some prominent recordings with bassist, Jimmy Blanton. He died after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in Amsterdam following a performance.


Chu Berry

Leon Brown “Chu” Berry (September 13, 1908 – October 30, 1941) was born in Wheeling, West Virginia. Chu is probably the least-known player on this list. Berry spent most of his early years in the midwest playing with many of the important bands of the early- to mid-30s. His most important association was with Cab Calloway in the late 30s and early 40s.

chu berry

Chu Berry had assimilated all that Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster had contributed to the saxophone while putting his own stamp to it. Berry also possessed a flawless technique which he displayed on uptempo numbers that he seemed to be more partial to. Also, he had a great knowledge of harmony just like Coleman Hawkins. This made it possible for him to improvise effortlessly at fast tempos.

Berry had a softer sound than his contemporaries and didn’t use much of the growl sound that Hawkins and Webster utilized. However, Berry did emulate the cello-like vibrato introduced by Hawkins (and that all saxophonists of that era seemed to prefer).

chu berry

Chu made some terrific small group recordings with Hot Lips Page and Roy Eldridge. Here’s a recording that Berry made in 1938 with His Little Jazz Ensemble featuring Roy Eldridge called “Sittin’ In”.

An interesting fact is that Chu Berry recorded “Body and Soul” about six or seven months before Coleman Hawkins recorded that same tune in 1939. Many believe that Hawkins’s version became the more famous rendition because of the improvisational liberties that he took on the piece. Berry remained truer to the melody in his version. This recording highlights Berry’s sound and phrasing: Chu Berry and Roy Eldridge performing “Body and Soul”.

Tragically, Berry died in a car accident at the age of 33 in 1941. Due to his shortened career there aren’t as many recordings available; however, his original approach to the sound have made him one of the most copied players and important figures in the history of jazz.

One final note, Berry received his nickname because he had a habit of biting down on his mouthpiece.


Lester Young

Lester Willie Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959), nicknamed “Pres”, was one of the most interesting players of his time. He was born in Mississippi and raised in New Orleans. Pres spent most of his career in the midwest (living in Minneapolis) and played with many of the Kansas City territory bands.

lester-young

Lester Young is one of the most interesting characters in the world of jazz and he was light years ahead of his contemporaries—he didn’t play like Coleman Hawkins. Lester brought with him a light and airy sound that he developed as a kid.

Young came from a family of musicians that traveled all over the country and played minstrel shows and festivals. He played the C melody sax as part of his family’s band and, it’s important to note that, the C melody sax was more popular than the tenor or alto at that time.

Lester was able to transfer the sound of the C melody sax to the tenor and this helped him create his own inimitable style. His sound was a major influence on the sax players and musicians of the 1940s; e.g., Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Dexter Gordon are a few of his disciples.

lester young

Lester’s approach to rhythm was very much like Armstrong; i.e., he swung his eighth notes and played behind the beat. He was a foreshadower of the bebop sound. In fact, Charlie Parker memorized Lester’s solos note for note and was able to imitate Lester’s phrasing and time feel.

Young’s first great session was with Bennie Moten and the Blue Devils. But, he really came into his own playing with the Count Basie Orchestra.

Many of the midwestern musicians hung out in Kansas City and had their own style and approach to playing. This style was called the Kansas City Riff Style and they relied heavily on the blues and improvisation. Lester was major figure in this scene.

The Basie band, which was based out of Kansas City, left in 1936 and made their home in New York City. Here’s Lester with the Basie Band “(Back and Home Again in) Indiana”.

Lester had many wonderful working relationships with the musicians of the 40s and 50s. His most notable relationship was with Billie Holiday and they made some timeless recordings. His approach to slow tunes and ballads display a rhythmic mastery that allows him to really lay back and play behind the beat. Check out Pres and Lady Day performing “Fine and Mellow”.

Lester’s health declined during his final years due to the cumulative effects of alcohol and malnutrition. He died at the age of 49.


Final Thoughts

These four classic tenors came into maturity in the 30s and helped shape the sound of jazz for the years that followed.

  • Hawkins is considered to be the father as he was the first to perform successfully and his sound and harmonic approach became the model for the musicians that followed.
  • Ben Webster provided a greater pallet of colors and his ability to play sensual ballads demonstrated more of the possibilities that the instrument offered.
  • Chu Berry created a beautiful, innocent, soft and smooth approach that is quite appealing making him one of the most copied players to date.
  • Lastly, the most important of the four, Lester Young, contributed rhythmic and tonal options that influenced the future of jazz. Lester set the standard for the bebop players and modern jazz musicians.  

I encourage you to research more recordings of these great players. We owe them a debt of gratitude for their contributions and can repay that debt by simply keeping the music alive.

Thanks for reading!

Top 10 Best Jazz Trumpet Players of All-Time

best jazz trumpet players of all time
 

One of the most highly debated topics in the jazz sphere is ‘Who was the Best Jazz Trumpet Player of All-Time?’

best jazz trumpet player of all time

While coming up with a definitive answer is nearly impossible, many have chimed in to give their opinions on who they feel should go down as the best to ever do it in jazz on the trumpet.

But with so many amazing players from different eras and areas, it’s hard to not to factor in the obvious bias in a lot of the opinions that are given these days.

Those that grew up in the 70’s may be more predisposed to saying Miles Davis was the greatest all time. Similarly, those that grew up with a parent or a relative that was a very heavy fan of another influential jazz trumpet player may have inclinations toward another.

This list will attempt to settle the disputes once and for all and put forth a cohesive list, ranging from the inception of the genre to present day, of the best Jazz trumpet players to ever play the instrument.

Without further ado:

10. Doc Severinsen

doc severinsen trumpt

Check out one of Doc Severinsen’s many extraordinary Tonight Show performances.


9. Kenny Dorham

kenny dorham

Possibly one of the smoothest trumpet players to ever live, Kenny Dorham takes a very deserving place at the 9th spot on our best jazz trumpet players list.

Despite having some of the most lyrical trumpet playing that the genre has ever heard, Kenny Dorham still remains virtually unmentioned in the sphere of the ‘greats’ within the genre.

Perhaps best known by his composition of the famous jazz song ‘Blue Bossa,’ Kenny Dorham was unrivaled in his time in bebop composition, soloing, and playing.

Kenny had the ability to create phrases over certain changes in a song that made you listen to it in an entirely different way. His solos were both creative and innovative in every way and truly reflected his personality throughout.

When listening to Kenny, you never get the sense that his solos just contained a string of licks but rather a coherent stream of thought expressed through the very trumpet playing itself.

Check out this example of Kenny’s extraordinary playing.


8. Woody Shaw

woody shaw

A classy and smooth example of great trumpet playing, Woody Shaw pops up fairly at #8 on our list of best jazz trumpet players of all-time.

Donned a ‘virtuoso’ from a very young age, Shaw was always destined for greatness. He began his professional career at the astonishingly young age of 14 years old, ascending quickly in the ranks of professional musicianship from there.2

Afterward, Woody traveled to Paris in the 60’s where he began creating music for the famed ‘Blue Note Records’ recording label. During the 70’s, Woody’s career really picked up steam as he recorded his popular albums; Live at Berliner Jazztage, The Moontrane, Love Dance, and Iron Men.

Woody’s playing style can be best described as an alternate reality experience. He has a great habit of stringing together the ‘odd’ notes in various chords and progressions in a way that creates an unexpected, yet sonically appealing solo.

Hear an example of Woody’s prowess in this classic tune, “There Will Be Another You”.


7. Tom Harrell

tom harrell

Possibly one of the most unique stories in all of music, Tom Harrell has managed to thrive as one of the top jazz trumpet players amidst a diagnosis of extreme paranoid schizophrenia.

The symptoms began to pop up in his early 20’s, however, that didn’t stop his latent genius from being blasted on full display in each of his musical compositions.

When interviewed about the condition, he alleged that playing the trumpet actually caused the voices in his head to cease altogether, yet as soon as he stopped playing the voices would all return.3 Tom Harrell truly exemplifies the ‘tortured artist’.

Beyond that, his prolific playing speaks for itself. The effortless nature of his runs in each solo serve as a testament to his playing abilities. It is almost as if Tom Harrell himself is intertwined with the music while playing.

Read our bio on Tom Harrell for more info


6. Lee Morgan

lee_morgan4

Most famous for his work with Chuck Mingus, Lee Morgan could not justifiably be left off of our list of best jazz trumpeters for any reason.

Hailing from Philadelphia, Lee Morgan had the privilege of being under the tutelage of the great Clifford Brown for a period of time before being drafted into Dizzy Gillespie’s band once he turned 18.4

Hear Lee Morgan’s legendary solo on Sidewinder.


5. Arturo Sandoval

Arturo Sandoval

Arturo Sandoval is another very unique story in the history of the jazz genre. Originally born in Cuba, Arturo Sandoval was a natural talent at the instrument since the beginning. He began playing the trumpet a very early age, displaying a profound level of skill for his age.

The story is fuzzy on whether Dizzy discovered Arturo or vice versa, but we know that Dizzy once traveled over to Cuba and the two ran into each other at one of Arturo’s gigs in the late 70’s.

From then on the two were able to forge a great musical partnership and friendship that would serve to help propel Arturo into immediate stardom in the genre.


4. Wynton Marsalis

Wynton-Marsalis_Merrill-Auditorium

The best metaphor that can be given for Wynton Marsalis would be that he’s Jazz’s version of Floyd Mayweather.

He’s a guy who’s resume and ability clearly sets him apart from all other trumpeters at large, however, the lack of parity in great jazz musicians today has greatly waned since the golden eras that these other players on the list existed in, causing some to question whether his prowess would have been as extraordinary in a different era.

Watch / listen to this clip of Wynton Marsalis strutting his stuff at Marciac 2009.

clifford-brown

It is nearly impossible to find a great trumpet player that cannot say they were influenced by Clifford Brown’s playing or technique in some way, shape, or form. What makes this even more remarkable is that Clifford Brown only lived to the age of 25, dying prematurely due to a car accident.

Despite not learning trumpet until the age of 13, Clifford’s virtuoso skill allowed him to launch to the top of the genre in a little under a decade.

Before his untimely death, Clifford created and recorded a series of charts that would serve to immortalize him in jazz history.

The most famous of all of them, Joy Spring which was composed by Clifford Brown, would serve as the quintessential representative of his playing style and amazing prowess ass a solo artist and overall trumpet player.

Hear Joy Spring by Clifford Brown below.


2. Miles Davis

miles davis

Possibly the most famous jazz trumpet player of all time, right behind Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis stands tall at #2 on our list of best jazz trumpet players.

To those unfamiliar with Miles Davis, there may be some confusion as to why he’s placed so high up on the list. When you listen to one of his most famous songs, ‘So What,’ you aren’t immediately struck by what makes him so amazing.

However, it is the simplicity in the chart creation and his solos which made them so revolutionary. Remember, this is before an era of ‘smooth jazz’ or any related concept.

This was the prime ‘feel cool’ music to play at the time and Miles was the prime ‘feel cool’ guy. He invented the concept of allowing gaps of one’s solo play for them.

As Miles famously stated, “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.”


1. Dizzy Gillespie

dizzy gillespie

The man, the myth, the legend – Dizzy Gillespie takes the cake for #1 jazz trumpet player of all time. He’s played with or influenced just about every player on this list and the same could probably be said if a best drummer, saxophone player, or trombone player list arose.

From the puffy cheeks, the alternate fingerings, awards he won, trademark jazz charts he created to the jazz artists he tutored and influenced that went on to become legends themselves, Dizzy has done it all. The man was so influential he even invented his own trumpet which can still be bought today.

There aren’t enough good things that can be said about Dizzy as well as his contribution to jazz as a whole from his inception as a professional to his passing away.

Sources:

  1. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/doc-severinsen-mn0000167794/awards
  2. https://woodyshaw.com/pages/woody-shaw-bio
  3. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/a-beautiful-note/
  4. http://leemorgan.jazzgiants.net/biography/

What Is Jazz? A Beginner’s Guide To The Great American Artform

charlie parker

ed lozano

 

 

What do we think of when we think of jazz? How do we define the style? Those are loaded questions and difficult to answer when it comes to jazz music. It is easy to say that jazz has cultural and aesthetic elements attached to it; but, defining the style is not as easy as it seems. Let’s take a simple look at some of the periods that are important when we talk about jazz.

what is jazz music all about

Jazz of the Roaring 20’s

The New Orleans style was at the forefront of this movement and Louis Armstrong and His Hot 5 of the late 1920s (check out “Fireworks” on YouTube) were the ambassadors. However, that style of jazz was more representative of the Chicago sound. So, then what does New Orleans Jazz sound like, exactly? Here’s a great explanation of this style by Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Jazz Academy and I encourage you to watch the video because they do a phenomenal job of explaining and playing the differences.

Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, 1926. Left to right: Louis Armstrong at piano holding trumpet, Johnny St. Cyr with banjo, Johnny Dodds, Kid Ory, Lil Hardin Armstrong. American jazz band.

The Big Band Sound of the 1930s

The 1930s brought with it format changes that included the switch from smaller combos to larger ensembles (or big bands) that focused more on composition and arrangement. Here’s an example of the Big Band Music of the 1930s that I’m talking about.

harry james and band hershey park ballroom 1945

The jazz of the 1920’s had a more improvised approach. This new style of jazz used improvisation but only in certain parts of the song. The composition and arrangement (or the written music) was more prominent.

And, that leads to another question: Does jazz have to be improvised to be jazz?

The Birth of Bop and Birth of Cool

During the late 1950s and early 1960s jazz was continually evolving. There were so many changes going on at the time that the musicians themselves were divided into traditionalists and modernists. Smaller combos were in vogue again and jazz was becoming a style of music that you sat down and listened to rather than danced to.

Bebop was born with Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie leading the way and taking the new sound into a direction that was driven by improvisational virtuosity. Take a listen to “Hot House” for an example of bebop.

charlie parker

Meanwhile, on the other side of the street, Miles Davis was experimenting with a new sound. A more laid back sound that wasn’t so harmonically complex.  “So What” is the opening track of the legendary Kind of Blue album that explored the modal side of jazz while launching a movement.

miles davis birth of the cool

Bop vs. Cool

Bebop has a certain way that the musicians play. From the notes that they choose to their rhythmic interpretation. The same should be said about the Cool style. Also, as you compare both recordings, notice the change in the function of the rhythm section; i.e., the high-hat on 2 and 4 or the ride cymbal on all quarter notes, the walking bass, and the modern piano style of accompaniment, etc. Both styles changed the way that jazz was played.

dizzy gillespie teaching be bop

The 1960s and More Change

The musicians of 60s began adding rock, pop and motown styles into jazz creating a fusion of genres. Check out “Bitches Brew” by Miles Davis and see how that changed the face of jazz. In addition, there were other players who were experimenting with more unorthodox structures and song forms. Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders and Charles Mingus were prominent players that contributed to this movement.

charles mingus live

So, What Is Jazz?

I’m not avoiding answering this question. In this very brief overview I’m proposing that the only constant in jazz is change. And, although there are specific formulas that define different styles of music, they would only serve to describe the sub-genres of jazz.

What about today’s music scene where it gets even more complicated? There are so many additional sub-genres: latin jazz, acid jazz, smooth jazz, trad jazz, soul jazz, etc. How do we begin to define those styles and substyles as they relate to jazz?

acid jazz live simplistic scientists

It would be easy to say that jazz is improvised and improvisation is a big part of it. But, Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton created pieces that didn’t include any improv. And, that’s the thing with jazz. Just when you think that you’ve got it figured out… jazz does something, unexpected.

Jazz Is…

American music, and American music was created by mixing elements of African-American Folk music of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries with European influences. And, just as American music is constantly evolving, so is jazz.

The big difference between jazz and other kinds of music is that improvisation is a big part of it. When an improviser plays the same song every night, every night that song is different. The same cannot be said of a classical concerto or a pop tune.

Jazz is simply a way to play music. And, that music is ever evolving and ever changing. Also, whatever the future holds for jazz, I’m quite certain that jazz will continue to do what it does best—the unexpected.

Thanks for reading.

Who Is Duke Ellington?

young duke ellington

Known as the innovator of the ‘big-band,’ Duke Ellington may be one of, if not the most quintessential figures in jazz history and music at large of the 20th century.

Jazz_musician_Duke_Ellington

As a pianist, conductor, and songwriter, Duke Ellington was able to electrify audiences with his colorful pieces that stood the test of time. Ellington’s influence in jazz was and is so great that he has helped to create several other jazz legends as well.1

A Brief History

Ellington was born in the heart of the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., in April 1899, where he began learning the piano at an early age. Originally named Edward Kennedy Ellington, he earned the name ‘Duke’ at the age of 15 because he carried the persona of a gentleman.2 At the age of 17, Duke headed up to New York to begin his career as a professional musician in a move that would serve as the starting point of one of the most prolific music careers in history.

young duke ellington

Ellington began gaining notoriety in New York in the ‘20s by playing in basement clubs and other similarly situated venues. At that time, Jazz was a young, but fast-growing genre captivating audiences everywhere.

Playing near Broadway, Ellington and his band were one of many that capitalized on the genre’s upward trend, attracting numerous patrons to various bars and ‘hole-in-the-wall’ jazz joints where they’d perform from night until early dawn at times.

Among all competitors in the area, Duke Ellington’s band really stood out. On top of rewarding the crowds with his eclectic sounds and expert piano playing, the experience proved to be very beneficial for Ellington’s development as well. While in New York, he began listening to other popular jazz bands in the area and crafted his sound under the influence of other prominent jazz musicians in the area such as Fletcher Henderson and Bubby Miley.3

The Cotton Club

By the end of that decade (20’s), Duke’s following was enormous, leading him to score the highly-coveted role of in-house band at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club.4

cotton club nyc

It cannot be understated how important the Cotton Club Orchestra was for Duke Ellington’s later career and legacy. Coming in right at the cusp of the Harlem Renaissance, Duke turned his steady gigs at the Cotton Club into legend.

Located on the second floor of 644 Lexington on the corner of West 142nd in Harlem, the club functioned under the ownership of multiple mobsters and bootleggers as well. However, it wasn’t just Ellington’s amazing performances for the venue’s regular audience alone that made him legendary. Ellington’s popularity grew because the band was captured as part of a nationally syndicated weekly radio show.5 Exposing this level of sheer talent to the entire nation was a surefire way to guarantee Duke’s future stardom.

duke ellington cotton club orchestra brunswick 1235

Riding on the wave of his newfound popularity, Duke left the club in the early ‘30s to begin touring around the nation and featuring his band’s music in various motion pictures. It was at this point that Duke Ellington began to incorporate various elements of Latin American influence into his music, an element of many jazz songs that continues to thrive today.6 

Changing The Face Of Jazz Music

The Duke also incorporated various aspects of the cultural music he was exposed to in his tours around Europe into his jazz as well, creating a unique blend of music that was previously unheard before anywhere. During this period of the 30’s, Ellington was a very busy man making hundreds of recordings for various purposes with numerous different entities.

1933-duke-ellington-jazz-vintage-1933-bbc-recording-studio-photo1

One of the things that made Ellington stick out as a composer was not just his ability to aggregate an impressive big band, but also feature amazing individual instrumentalists as well. He also changed the trajectory of jazz music itself by incorporating various instruments together in a format that had never been used in unison before, such as clarinets and trumpets for example. His use of woodwind instruments, in particular, was something that helped him to develop different flavors and textures within his music and push the sound to a new echelon. Many jazz composers today still incorporate this method of composing and arranging in their music, with a tip of the cap to The Duke, whether they know it or not.

New Standards & Timeless Classics

During the 40’s, Ellington began to create more of the pieces that would serve the test of time and end up becoming enduring classics. Partnering with some of his band mates, Ellington was able to create timeless pieces such as ‘Take the A Train’, ‘Caravan’, ‘Concerto for Cootie’, ‘Cotton Tail’, and many others.7

In addition, Duke Ellington created jazz ballads and other pieces at a similar tempo that featured lead jazz singers. This innovation helped to set the tone for future artists such as Frank Sinatra whom recorded over many Duke Ellington pieces. It was through this innovation that created or bolstered legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Mingus, John Coltrane among others.

Legacy Of The Duke

Later in his career, Ellington continued to find a substantial amount of success as a composer, touring around essentially all of the continents in the world and exposing various cultures and fans to the blessings of his live performance. Constantly pushing jazz to its conceptual limit and evolving previous notions of what qualified as great jazz music, Duke Ellington’s prowess, creative genius, and daring as a composer and musician is unquestionable.

By taking an already abstract and formless genre and experimenting with it in a favorable way, Ellington was able to sonically elicit a pallet of emotions that the listener was unable to receive elsewhere. Whether it was through the blazing speed of his swing pieces or the beautiful ballads that elicited the sweetest amount of tension at times before resolving on a elegant dominant seventh chord following the dissonant augmented, Duke never failed to provide a captivating magnificence in his music that demanded the attention of others like a slow-motion car crash with the delicacy of a rose unveiling its pedals in the early spring.

duke-ellington-and-orchestra

Conclusion…

It is nearly impossible today to listen to any jazz music that wasn’t either composed by Duke Ellington or directly influenced by his innovations. Some of the standard charts that he was releasing in the ‘40s are still commonly played and requested in popular jazz bars, clubs, and concerts around the world. They are also often considered to be the common denominator for jazz listeners of all backgrounds, specialties, and inclinations. Perhaps there is no other aspect than this one that serves as a testament of Duke Ellington’s genius than to produce classics timeless enough to thrive in the genre over a half century later. In essence, you can’t spell jazz without Duke Ellington.

Sources:

  1. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/duke-ellington-mn0000120323/biography
  2. http://www.biography.com/people/duke-ellington-9286338#early-life
  3. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/05/17/black-brown-and-beige
  4. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/duke-ellington-about-duke-ellington/586/
  5. http://www.redhotJazz.com/dukecco.html
  6. http://www.encyclopedia.com/people/literature-and-arts/music-popular-and-Jazz-biographies/duke-ellington#B
  7. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Duke-Ellington

A 5 Track Introduction To Barry Adamson

barry-adamson-live-image

Music is like an ocean.  If you are frolicking near the shore, you might see certain unremarkable lifeforms – the kind everyone sees, like minnows darting around, and other commonplace things, like plankton, or sea scum.  We might equate these lifeforms with mainstream music – found in droves and unremarkable.

Indeed, some people stay in the shallow waters of mainstream culture because they are safe and easily accessible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get in your boat and head out into open water for a different kind of experience. 

barry adamson 5 tracks

If you go out far enough out, where its remote and with perhaps some dark clouds on the horizon, you can put on your diving suit and dive into the deep black depths for some adventure.  This, of course, is less safe (which is why most don’t do it) but you might see something a bit more interesting if you do this.  

Musically speaking, Barry Adamson is one of those unusual entities you will only see if you are swimming deep below the ocean’s surface, just seeing what you’ll find down there.  Yes, that’s right, his incandescent head may float out of the darkness and scare the shit out of you.

barry-adamson-king-of-nothing-hill-stumm176-560x502

Ok, we can dispense with the “sea creature” metaphor now, and talk about Barry Adamson the musician – the human person with the live beating heart and the mind full of intense, brooding music.

The reason for our abstract metaphor is partly because Barry Adamson is a fairly abstract and complex dude.  He is absolutely a legend in some circles, and completely unknown in others.  This leads to a weird dichotomy that even he must experience, where some people are in awe of his long list of musical achievements, while others have never before heard his name. 

barry-adamson-live-image
Source: Gagarin Magazine

So, why do we bring him up?  Because, if you are more than just an average listener, he is an artist worth noting.  He has been in a number of legendary bands, including post-punk pioneers Magazine, as well as playing in the Bad Seeds with Nick Cave, collaborating with David Lynch on Lost Highway, and as a mastermind behind a slew of his own infamous solo recordings. 

One thing that characterizes Barry Adamson is “dark”.  Much of his music is quite playful, but also quite dark as well.  You might even call some of it “raunchy”, which is not a usual descriptor for music these days.  Stripper music.  Hmm. 

In this article, we wanted to choose 5 of our favorite Barry Adamson tracks to introduce you to the man and his music, if you have not previously been introduced.  FYI, this will not be in chronological order – instead, we are just bouncing around to different projects he has been a part of over the years and giving you our thoughts on certain tracks.  Let us commence…

Something Wicked This Way Comes – Lost Highway Soundtrack

This is one of those moments where Barry Adamson, like the Loch Ness Monster, came to the surface briefly, long enough for a few cameras to capture some grainy video footage before the monster descended back down into the impenetrable lochs.  This is to say, the Lost Highway Soundtrack did reach some mainstream ears, and exposed Barry Adamson to a whole new audience.  Still, because we are talking about David Lynch here, and so to call this album a blockbuster would be slightly misleading. 

David Lynch was clearly a fan, and Barry Adamson made several contributions to this album, which was released in 1997.  “Something Wicked This Way Comes” is an interesting track in his catalogue, because it is almost unnervingly “happy”, especially once you watch the movie and also if you are familiar with Barry’s other work, you know that smooth, upbeat songs like this aren’t exactly his usual fare. 

Still, one can only love this track.  Its a gorgeous combination of various influences, from dub music, to lounge, to bossa nova and jazz.  It also features a slick little snippet of Massive Attack’s “Blue Lines”, for those keeping track.  

This song is, quite literally, soundtrack music, which you can almost trace back to what we will listen to next (but is from further into the past), which is something off of the classic album Moss Side Story, a fan favorite and one of ours too.


Under Wraps – Moss Side Story – Solo Record

Moss Side Story is the album that put Barry Adamson on the map as a solo musician, and forever cemented his association with both film noir and instrumental soundtrack music. 

This album was apparently made to be the soundtrack to a non-existent film noir, and that’s exactly how it sounds.  It is a highly conceptual album in nature, and musically quite rich and diverse, featuring various disparate elements pulled together to form something that sounds both old and new at the same time.  Take any track on its own, and it still works. 

Years later, this was also the album that caught David Lynch’s attention, and word has it he was quite complimentary to Adamson about the album.  While working on Lost Highway, David literally called up Barry and told him he’d been listening to the album for 10 hours straight, and wanted to work with him.  Adamson, oddly enough, was wheelchair bound during this phone call but took the job.

This track, Under Wraps, is a perfect example of what makes this album great, as it shows the true character of Barry Adamson as a unique and experimental musician with a vision.  Also, when taken in the context of his previous work at this juncture, meaning his involvement with both Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Magazine even earlier than that, there is an obvious trajectory where, in its own way, this album serves as culmination and a major accomplishment.


Tupelo – The Firstborn Is Dead – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Going back even further in time from Moss Side Story in 1988, here we find Barry Adamson playing with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds on Tupelo in 1985, contributing musical elements to help form the sonic identity of the band. 

Obviously, Nick Cave has his own sonic signature, but it is only enhanced but the dark musicality of Barry Adamson, who is a multi-instrumentalist and who played a variety of things on the album where this song comes from, The Firstborn Is Dead. 

Coming from his background as an outsider and a punk rock oddball, Barry’s entry into the Bad Seeds just made weird even weirder.  Of course, by this point in time, the Birthday Party had already happened, so there’s that to factor in as well.  Nick Cave and Barry Adamson have been lifelong collaborators, and so this song is taking us back a ways.

One thing that springs to mind when you hear music like this is that it is quite visceral.  Not all musical attempts to capture that feeling of actual real paganistic tribalism, regressed futurism, along with a healthy amount of gut-churning discomfort, but these guys were kings of this type of misfit sound.

In Other Worlds – Know Where To Run – Solo Album

Suddenly we zoom up to the present time, and we find Barry Adamson still drenched in the macabre and the vaguely unsettling.  After all of this back peddling into the past, we felt the need to highlight some of Adamson’s new work.

If you listen closely, you can hear the familiar elements of Barry Adamson’s sound still very much represented – jazzy forms, minor key synths, impeccable grooves, and whatever else lies inside within the mystery of his sound. 

You might notice here that the production is heightened compared to what we’ve already heard, but this is really nothing new.  Over his 10+ solo albums and wide variety of other projects, Barry Adamson has had the ability to turn up the clarity on his recordings or fuzz them out at will for a long time now.

What is infinitely cool about Barry Adamson’s sound, with this being a great example, is his mastery over each sonic element.  Having had a thorough experience with all of the instruments you hear in this track, Barry has great musical intuition on each, and so when he presents us with one of his productions, you hear the perfectionist at work.  We must say, it is always good to hear new stuff from this man. 

Shot By Both Sides – Real Life – Magazine

If you are a fan of bands like the Buzzcocks and Joy Division, you’ll probaby dig Magazine, which was the 70’s post punk band where Barry Adamson played bass. 

Shot By Both Sides was one of their first releases, off of the Real Life LP from back in 1978.  The album is a post-punk classic, and that’s not just us saying that – its a generally accepted fact of life at this point. 

Even as the band was very raw and ramshackle, there is diligent musicianship at work, and fairly developed song arrangements for a punk band.  Barry Adamson, in the thick of things with Magazine at this time, contributed plenty to the band’s dark and chaotic sound. 

In fact, you may want to get your hands on some Magazine and start your journey there, as it can take you in any number of directions musically, but we do recommend you follow Barry Adamson’s musical thread from this point onward, as it won’t take long before the man’s legacy of dark and edgy songs and soundscapes are laid bare before you. 

As dark as it is, Magazine is somewhat of a “fun” band to listen to – at least for us! 


We hope you’ve enjoyed this 5-song musical meandering throught he works of Barry Adamson. 

Visit Barry Adamson’s official website here for new tour dates and updates <