LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, October 21, 2017 – We have noted in past articles about jazz that each generation tends to view its music as unique and special, forgetting that the arc of musical development, is not really an arc. It is more like a corkscrew: each generation develops something new, but does so by referencing and building upon what has come before.
As Hunter Thompson noted, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
So, if some contemporary artists do not give the recognition due their “musical antecedents,” it is perhaps a reflection of how difficult the music business can be.
Can we assume that, for some artists, the desire to maintain what recognition and respect they have earned ultimately takes precedence over acknowledging what has come before?
Rap music can be heard as spoken word, or chanting, over a melodic or rhythmic base. Rap can rhyme or be presented as “blank verse”. It can include slang or street vernacular, can be socially or politically-oriented, can be musical, can be humorous or deadly serious. But is almost always poetic.
Like jazz and the blues, rap grew out of the black experience in America, and while a comprehensive history of rap is not this intent of this article. Nor is the author qualified to present that history.
There are earlier recordings and films that point the way to a music that was introduced and popularized by such figures as Run-D.M.C., Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur and many others.
Music on vinyl
Among the important elements of black culture disseminated via phonograph recordings were religious sermons, which share with rap music a sense of urgency, a thematic focus and, in many cases, a rhythmic foundation that makes the spoken word musical in nature.
Perhaps the most famous, and certainly one of the most powerful, recorded sermons is a two-sided disk by the Reverend A. W. Nix, BLACK DIAMOND EXPRESS, which takes us on a metaphorical journey as the train makes its many stops on the way to Hell.
The power of Nix’s delivery draws in the listener, regardless of that listener’s religious convictions, or lack thereof.
The secularized, “mock sermon” developed in the 1920s, and with it we note background music beginning to take greater prominence in the recording.
That Lonesome Road
THAT LONESOME ROAD, for example, has the feel of a composition out of the black experience, but it was actually written by two white songwriters, music by Nat Shilkret, and words by Gene Austin.
When presented by Louis Armstrong — a superb jazz singer, Louis mainly speaks throughout the recording — the marriage of words and music yield a humorous satire of earlier recorded sermons.
A bit later, in a similar combination of music and spoken word, Moses Allen, string bass player with the seminal Jimmie Lunceford orchestra, preaches about what will happen IN DAT MORNIN’.
As important as the sermon may be as an early antecedent to rap music, the earliest of rhythmic recitation over a musical foundation is entirely secular in nature.
Bert Williams was one of the true geniuses of early black comedy and stage performance. In 1903 he recorded one of the most important of early “spoken recordings,” NOBODY, which is as close to a mixture of pathos and humor as one will find on any record.
The song was a staple of William’s stage performances, and he re-recorded it in 1913.
One of the most important (and now overlooked) vocal harmony groups of the 1930s and 1940s was the Ink Spots. Overshadowed by the Mills Brothers, and such pop vocal groups as the Andrews Sisters, the Ink Spots early work reflects the highly syncopated approach of the great black jazz bands.
In the 1940s, however, they moved toward ballads and more gentle interpretations of pop standards. A regular part of many arrangements was a vocal tenor lead, followed by a spoken chorus, over guitar accompaniment by bass singer Hoppy Jones.
This device, termed “top and bottom” by group member Bill Kenney, was loved by black and white listeners alike and was soon the subject of gentle satire.
The Modernaires imitated the Ink Spots in the Glenn Miller hit “Juke Box Saturday Night.” A more direct satire was offered by the black dance and comedy team Patterson and Jackson.
After a brief dance introduction, Warren Patterson imitates the tenor lead of Bill Kenney and Deek Watson, then sends up the spoken interval by Hoppy Jones. The song: the Ink Spots’s hit “Do I Worry?”
In the 1940s, Louis Jordan was performing music that strongly influenced the development of rhythm and blues. Jordan’s music never lacked swing, nor did it ever shy away from humor.
He had numerous hits during the 1940s, among them BEWARE, BROTHER, BEWARE. Often criticized as an example of musical misogyny, one must take a step back and see it a reflection of the times, and an exaggerated and hilarious one at that. As spoken word over a jazz riff, its early relevance to rap is obvious.
The 1950s was a decade of musical banality that had us staring at yellow polka dot bikinis, questioning how much the doggie in the window might cost, and wondering why the Nash Rambler’s horn went “beep beep beep.”
There were many responses to the insipid music and lyrics of the period; Elvis Presley’s rapid rise to fame is just one of them. Elvis also had a famously spoken word interlude in his hit “Are You Lonesome Tonight”.
Flying under the popular musical radar were the beat poets and comics who shared their existential fears behind the sounds of a cool jazz combo.
While these poets — Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso, among others — were deadly serious, their overly earnest approach invited satire.
In Roger Corman’s A BUCKET OF BLOOD, the entire beat poet movement was brilliantly sent up by actor Julian Burton, backed during the opening credits by also sax great Paul Horn.
Burton’s performance notwithstanding, the beat poets had something serious to say about alienation, a need of passion for social justice, and the ever-present stress created by the threat of nuclear war.
Within the realm of jazz there are musicians who are able to look back and forward at the same time: back to early influences and important jazz developments, and forward to an ever-evolving art form.
One of these musicians is Stix Hooper, who began playing as a dedicated bebop drummer with The Jazz Crusaders, but whose music has constantly evolved, through fusion to a music that recognizes and respects worldwide influences.
Next time we will explore Stix’s career first hand with an exclusive interview, then watch him in action with The Jazz Crusaders, sample some of his influences, and also share the only mainstream jazz video ever produced for MTV.
Mark Cantor is a film and music historian and the curator of Celluloid Improvisations Music Film Archive, one of the largest private collections of jazz, blues, and American popular music on 16mm film worldwide.
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