Roots Of Pop

imageAs the big band era lurched to a close in America, and the young turks of the jazz scene were striking out for new musical territory, a whole new explosion of black popular music was sending shock waves through the country. Out of step with and alienated from the high-gloss sophistication of the latter-day swing bands run mostly for and by whites, the urban blacks had been turning to more fundamental, hard-hitting music for their kicks. The worst days of the Depression were in the past and many people with money were able to look optimistically to the future again. The majority wanted to hear good-time music, and the advent of the Second World War in the US was another reason for a music-loving nation to seek entertainment which enhanced or celebrated life, rather than dwell in the dark realities of a nation at war.

The music, which came roaring through to capture the urban black audience’s minds and feet at first had no distinct name of its own, but by the end of the war, it was known to its fans as rhythm and blues, or ‘r & b’. Its roots went back into a late-thirties phenomenon, the ‘jump’ bands, these little big bands, or big little bands, had grown directly from small-group swing music, emphasizing the rhythmic concepts so beloved of boogie pianists and blues men (shuffle beat or even occasionally a back-beat), and going in big for the blistering sax or trumpet solo. It was ideal music to go crazy dancing to. Some of the most popular bands had vocalists up front, or featured a vocalist for novelty value. The man generally credited with getting the ‘jump’ style up and running was alto saxophonist Pete Brown (1906-1963). Brown came up through the swing bands and for a while played with trumpeter Frankie Newton (1906-1954) in bassist John Kirby’s band. After that, both men gigged around, often appearing together in various units, and stuck to the small-group style they preferred. Brown, by the time of his first recordings in 1937, had a fully mature saxophone style which generated tremendous rhythmic propulsion against a swinging beat, a gritty vocal sound, and clipped, ebullient phrasing. Although never a big star or member of a smash-hit group, Brown’s influence was extensive, his style suggesting as it did an alternative (and more exciting) approach to swing sax playing. Tenor saxophonist Al Sears, who managed so successfully for five years playing with Duke Ellington as well as a later career as a hard-bitten r & b stylist, was one of the more prominent examples of Brown’s impact.

Johnny Otis, an early r & b visionary, also produced many purely instrumental sessions for various labels and helped define a whole movement in West Coast r & b during the early fifties, In 1953. He worked for Bob Shad at Mercury: ‘Shad and I got Ben Webster out of Kansas City. We did some things with an r & b background which he really loved. He had never worked with a twanging blues guitar before. We did four instrumentals , jazz and boogies.’ Johnny Otis had strong views on the takeover of rhythm and blues by rock & roll. ‘ rock & roll was a direct outgrowth of r & b. It took over all the things that made r & b different from big band swing; the after-beat on a steady four; the influence of boogie; the triplets on piano; eight-to-the-(bar on the top)-hat cymbal; and the shuffle pattern of dotted eight and sixteenth notes.’ He could have also added the utilization of a burning electric guitar, chorded or solo, but that was taken as much from post-war blues as from anywhere else. With the advent of rock & roll, there was nowhere for r & b as a genre to go anymore; even as great an artist as Ray Charles, the quintessence of quality r & b in the fifties, move on, and by 1963 was putting his gospel-inspired touch to ballads and pop songs such as Georgia and Crying Time. This occurred after an early career which had moved from hesitant imitation of Nat King Cole and Wynonie Harris too, by the mid-fifties, a completely mature style which magically combined gospel and blues, often in a sophisticated jazz setting. Charles as a singer had that devastating ‘cry’ in his voice which is the mark of the very greatest singers, while his interpretive abilities and innate musicality brought to his public a flowering of gifts simply unparalleled in the blues and r & b scene.

“The Illustrated Story of Jazz”
by Keith Shadwick

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