Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"The joint is jumpin'": 1920s jazz

A 1920s jazz band has been featured in several episodes of the current season of Downton Abbey, as Cousin Rose visits London's Lotus Club in one episode and later invites the six-man ensemble to the Abbey as a surprise for her Uncle's Robert's birthday. (Interestingly, the leader and singer, Jack Ross, is black and the players are white.) One of our Downton junkies at Daedalus constructed a poll asking which famous American musician of the era you would want to perform at your birthday party. This was a tough one for me because of course I love all of them. Gershwin had a reputation for being the life of the party, improvising at the piano til all hours. On the other hand, with Cole Porter you get brilliant words and music—and he wasn't shy about serving up both at a soiree. But for me, it came down to Bessie Smith, who had an awesome voice and persona, and who wasn't recorded with very good technology. The chance to hear her in person would be a dream come true. ("Check all your razors and your guns / Do the shim-sham shimmy till the risin' sun!")
Lead piano by Buck Washington and trumpet solo by Frankie Newton. By the way, the lyrics' mention of a "reefer and a gang of gin" qualifies this track for inclusion in the collection Marijuana Madness: The Best of Vintage Drug Songs 1924-1950!
Jazz was introduced to Britain by the racially integrated Original Dixieland Jass Band, who toured there in 1919. As pertains to the milieu and period of Downton Abbey, it appears that the preferred terms for British popular music aficionados in the 1920s were  "hot" or "straight" dance music as opposed to "jazz."
Of course the hot rhythms and syncopations of jazz pioneers like Morton and Armstrong were assimilated on Broadway by popular music composers like Berlin, Gershwin, and Porter. What is now called "swing" originated as a number of different dance styles in the 1920s and '30s, primarily in black communities in New York. In fact, one can safely say that almost all of the popular dances of the era originated with African Americans: Cakewalk, The Turkey Trot, The Fox Trot, the Bunny Hug, the Two-Step, The Black Bottom, the Charleston, et al. Below is  Clarence Williams' Blues Five's 1925 recording of "Cakewalking Babies From Home"as well as a few vintage photographs illustrating the theme "ain't we got fun?"
Chorus girls at Harlem's Apollo Theater demonstrate their Terpsichorean ebullience
Josephine Baker, the doyenne of Parisian nightlife, gets jiggy with the Charleston
Your portal to a wonderful, deeply discounted assortment of jazz and jazz-inspired popular music by the entertainers mentioned in this blog is just a click away. And you can test your knowledge of early jazz and get a discount on your next Daedalus order with the little ole quiz made by moi.
Don't forget to check back often on the Daedalus Books "Roaring Downton" Forum—a nexus of books, DVDs, news videos, quizzes, fan chats, and other fascinating items relating to the series.
Pop quiz: 1) What is the Gershwin song that has been used countless times by jazz musicians for improvisations on its chord changes?
2) What are the two songs Jack Ross sings in Downton Abbey?

1) "I've Got Rhythm"
2) "April Showers" and "I'm Just Wild About Harry"
The latter is kind of a weird song for a guy to sing. But perchance he has hidden depths, as illustrated in this vintage photo.

1 comment:

  1. Didn't think I knew too much about the jazz age but I scored 80% on the quiz.

    Also thanks for posting about Bessie Smith. Unfortunately until today, all I really knew about her was she was a great singer and a bit about her unnecessary passing.