Jazz as Live Performance
. When one thinks of the best live jazz recordings, certainly several come to mind: Sonny Rollins at the Village Vanguard
(Blue Note), John Coltrane—Complete Village Vanguard Sessions
(Impulse), The Miles Davis Quintet at the Plugged Nickel
(Columbia), Benny Goodman Live at Carnegie Hall
(Columbia). The sheer beauty of Jazz practice is that every performance is a new improvisatory composition. This is why multiple performances of the same piece by the same artist is not considered a collection redundancy any more than owning both Sir Georg Solti’s and Sir John Eliott Gardiner’s Beethoven Nine.
Live jazz has an immediacy that only it can capture. When well performed and apprehended, the music is like scripture, listened to and studied well after that first performance with the ability of reveal something new with each listening. John Hammond knew this as he also knew that recording music in the future would be half anthropology—half archeology. In the same league with but more effectively than Alan Lomax, Hammond was able to bring African American music to the forefront of American popular music. One of his first crowning achievements were the 1938-1938 Carnegie Hall Concerts, From Spirituals to Swing.
A Postage Stamp of History. In the late ‘30’s, John Hammond planned a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York, presenting African-American music from blues stem to jazz stern. Hammond was unable to procure funding from any source (including the NAACP) due to the political and cultural winds of the period. He finally received a grants from the politically left organizations New Masses and The Theater Arts Committee. This iconoclastic support From Spirituals To Swing, became a reality in 1938 and again in 1939, displaying blues, gospel and jazz musics on a major label for the consuming public.
Hammond facilitated this concert’s released as a 2 LP box in 1959. The concerts were reissued on CD in 1987 after Vanguard Records was purchased by the Welk Music Group. This current release is as a historic box set containing 23 previously unreleased tracks. The new package includes a reproduction of the original 1938 20 page program as well as a 48 page book with historical photos, original liner notes and a new forward by Steve Buckingham and a reminiscence by Harry “Sweets” Edison (who sadly passed away this past July). The original collection notes are perhaps as valuable a document as the performances. They include the 1959 musings of Hammond about the then 20 year old recordings. A 1939 review from the New Masses is also included as well as an essay by Charles Edward Smith from the same year.
A Mixed Metaphor.... With vintage recordings, there is always a battle between history and sonic fidelity. While remastering this music has improved it over the original LP and CD releases, it was still not recorded with late ‘90s technology and does not sound so. This is only a warning to neophytes expecting the sound of the last Greg Osby studio release. The sound is grainy with static and surface noise that is common with remastered music originally recorded from the 1920s to the late 1940s.
For those of us who recall vinyl recordings, there is something warm and familiar to this sound. In reality, the sonics of From Spirituals To Swing approximate those of Columbia Legacy’s The Complete Robert Johnson. Globally, the comparison does not stop there. Hammond had wanted to locate Johnson to appear in the first concert. He anticipated him so much as to have his name printed of the concert advertisements before he learned that Johnson had been murdered merely months before the concert. Dark American Romance. Both recordings contain music sifting through 60 years from a very different time to a more different time with the sonics adding to this. Music like this is not merely to be enjoyed, but learned from and honored. In that light, sonics are secondary.
...To The Accepted Vernacular. The 23 previously unreleased pieces include 20 from the concerts and three from the studio. What are the highlights? The “Kansas City Six” portion contains the only live recordings of Lester Young and Charlie Christian together. Clark Terry’s eerie harmonica, James P. Johnson’s long stride, Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons’ boogie. Oh, I failed to mention Count Basie and Benny Goodman. Having these two orchestras together vividly illustrate two fertile approaches to swing: the organic Basie versus the cerebral Goodman.
A greater juxtaposition was having the most complex of period Jazz performed side by side with the most rudimentary Gospel and Blues; a perfect example of the continuum and evolution of African American music. This is an essential collection because of the musical-cultural snapshot it provides. The details of the tracks can be gleaned from the liner notes and scholarship. Any jazz enthusiast would enjoy and benefit such a recording.