Monday, August 3, 2015

Otis on Bix

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

We have said this many times on these pages, but it bears repeating: the JazzProfiles blog is as much a tribute to Jazz writers as it is an homage to the music and its makers.

Jazz authors, editors and critics provide us with insights and information that helps enrich our listening experience.

To name but a few - Leonard Feather, Nat Hentoff, Ira Gitler, Dan Morgenstern, Doug Ramsey Ted Gioia, Gary Giddins, Howard Mandel, Bob Blumenthal, Mark Gardner, Mike Hennessey, Steve Voce, Alyn Shipton, Michael Cuscuna, Gene Lees, Martin Williams, Grover Sales, Don Heckman, Ralph Gleason, Phillip Elwood, Stanley Dance, Bill Kirchner, Robert Gordon, Jack Chambers, Terry Teachout, Kenny Mathieson, Len Lyons, Max Harrison, and Whitney Balliett, whom many consider to be the literary dean of writers on the subject of Jazz, - all make our awareness and appreciation of Jazz and Jazz musicians greater because of their skills as writers and storytellers.

But many of these writers efforts on behalf of the music were still about a decade or more away when on September 14, 1943 merchant marine seamen Otis Ferguson’s ship, the Bushrod Washington, was hit by a radio-guided bomb off the coast of Salerno, Italy. The other seamen escaped before the vessel burned to the waterline, but the bomb had exploded in the messroom, to which Otis, as was his custom, had gone down alone for a cup of coffee.

Malcolm Cowley, his closest friend at The New Republic, the magazine that published much of Otis Ferguson’s writings, had this to say about him:

“Ferguson's name is legendary in the field of jazz. He has been called "the best writer on jazz who ever lived" and "the most brilliant of them all." One of the first critics to write seriously about this native American music, he brought an understanding and appreciation of jazz to an audience far wider than the original small group of aficionados. Professional jazz musicians have been among his most ardent admirers.” [The Otis Ferguson Reader, p. 1].

Malcolm also offered these observations about Otis in his Foreword to The Otis Ferguson Reader:

“I find with regret that the work and even the name of Otis Ferguson are generally unknown to readers under sixty. Older persons are likely to remember the work with pleasure. Much of it dealt with swing bands or unpretentious, well-crafted films and, by extension, with the revival of popular culture during the 1930s, an aspect of the period that is often neglected. Otis—I can't address him coldly as "Ferguson"— approached those subjects freshly, accurately, with lyrical enthusiasm and with contempt for anything faked. Everything he wrote was attentively read in its time, besides leaving echoes in the work of later critics. But the author, who had volunteered as a merchant seaman, was blown up by a German bomb in the Gulf of Salerno, and soon his writing became hard to find except in the back flies of magazines, chiefly The New Republic. Now, after forty years, it is good to learn that the best of the writing, in many fields, is being collected as an Otis Ferguson Reader.”

If you haven’t read Otis Ferguson, you are in for a treat. Here’s his essay on Bix Beiderbecke, of whom, it is important to remember, Otis was a contemporary; a rare privilege given the brevity of Bix’s life [1903-1931], an Otis’ for that matter.

Bix Beiderbecke's Music

“Between Davenport and the Goldkette band, Bix Beiderbecke had grown up. What his maturity came to in music is lost today without a phonograph, and seems only to be buried all over again if it is invoked in words.

He had not only mastered his instrument; he had made it a flexible and eloquent instrument for a personal jazz that had a terrific gust in it and rang as clear as bells. A trained ear or an elaborate phonetic device can distinguish the minute differences of intonation between any one player and any other. But with Bix these are hardly necessary. On a rainy day when he was low and listless, he might have played something that could be confused with the best work of those who followed him, learning his method and even his phrases—some of them very well. But when he is really himself, which is most of the time, he is as unmistakable as a friend's voice, and as warming to the heart somehow.

You cannot single him out by his pure technical mastery of the instrument, because others have mastered that instrument. You can't find many of those mannerisms and easily spotted peculiarities that tag so many musicians as insistently as a theme song. He never became the slave of a phrase habit, and even phrases he was partial to are never exactly reproduced in context or emphasis. He was unique in himself, in those underground waters that no laws of harmony or notation or graphic sound waves have ever charted. Anyone who plays his way, often an extremely simple way and never complex for the sheer excitement of complexity, plays wholly on his musical nerve, right out of some definite feeling of exuberance, sadness, love of the thing.

You will know him by the little ringing shout he can get into a struck note; by the way each note seems to draw the others after it like a string of cars, giving the positive effect of speed even in his artful lags and deliberation, a sort of reckless and gay roll; and by the way, starting on the ground, he will throw a phrase straight up like a rope in the air, where it seems to hang after he has passed along, shaking gently. Above all (and this comes out best in the non-Dixieland numbers, where he remained subdued but getting the feel of it right up to the release and then putting it all in eight or sixteen bars), above all there is his singing quality — over the chord and melodic structure of the tune and against the steady four-four beat, he made a little song of his own, sometimes shouting and sometimes very sweet, and often both at once. No one ever had a more plunging jazz rhythm, or developed such varied syncopations with such complete lack of strain and screaming. Yet there are very few who (like Jack Teagarden) have shown anything like his consistent lyric sense.

For there are many who can be very pure and hot in running chords, very high, heavy, and hectic in general; but the art of making it sing is not only rare but usually lost sight of today altogether. And there is exactly no one who has kept this pure lyric quality, which the best men begin to bring out only in the slow, haunting jump of the blues, in the kind of ride Bix used to take it in, on numbers with the tear and rush of an express train. To hear him is to have the feeling of being present at the original spring music comes from.

Between Bix and whoever has the ear to listen there was none of the usual blocking effect of a set score and a difficult instrument; he simply delivered music, easy and direct. It is this intense but free personal language of his that explains such mysteries as, say, the effect of fierce open attack he gets in "From Monday On"—that first trumpet blast-without actually using the volume some can work up, and he gets it out of a horn much milder than the trumpet, at that. Or, say, the electric syncopation which suddenly tears through the large Whiteman arrangement of "After You've Gone," bringing the whole number up standing, yet being the only true expression of the tune's full sadness in it, Someday, when you grow lonely ....

He taught himself ways of doing it that couldn't have come from anyone else; for example, his trick of setting off the key note of a phrase by brushing a false—or grace — note just below it, so that he could rip up into it. An economy of emphasis, and at the same time a sharp underlining of where it falls, that leads the ear the way his phrase wants it to go. It was partly this that Hoagy Carmichael meant when he said, "The notes weren't blown-they were hit, like a maUet hits a chime"; it was this that Whiteman meant when he said Bix could get more music into three notes than the whole band would get all night.

In technique he could do about what he wanted, take a sudden high or difficult rush of notes and break them in the air like glass balls at a rodeo-from the hip, you might say, without mussing a hair. But he wasn't out for display as such and used only the effects that carried out his purpose, though he could have hit high ones and run fast cadenzas all over town with the best of them. The result is that you forget all about technique — and I remember, when I first got the Trumbauer "There'll Come a Time," just assuming that the tonguing of those long first-chorus phrases, the notes seeming to run together yet each broken cleanly, that it must be a slide comet in there.

He never seemed to try, even. Yet those who played with him can tell you how the lines of effort and worry would cut into his face every time he lifted his instrument. He worked at it almost violently sometimes, trying for perfections that must be beyond the range of every ear in the place but his own. Sometimes comparing successive masters-same tune, same day-you can still hear him doing it the hard way, i.e., instead of throwing in more notes to improve the solo effect, finding a way to do it in fewer. He worked in quite an opposite way to open up the restricting simplicity of four-four time, and some of his favorite distortions, lilting along with the basic rhythm, would require a change of time signature in writing out his counter rhythm two, three, or four times in as many bars-if this kind of music could ever be written.

There is actually more of it than this, of course. Behind the beautiful dead-center tone, the unpredictable song and leap of rhythm and all the rest of it, there is a straight, clean personality. He was always good-hearted, always cocky. But he was so simple, natural, and sweet in what he was doing that you get it without noticing it at first, setting it down to the good swing and tone of his chorus. It takes longer but is worth the extra time to find that this grows on you, a hundred times on a million turntables, without wearing out any more than a healthy plant wears out, a perfect thing in nature, and evergreen.”

Unpublished, 1940

The following video features Cornetist Bix Beiderbecke performing Royal Garden Blues with Bill Rank, trombone, Don Murray, clarinet, Adrian Rollini, bass sax and Chauncey Morehouse, drums.

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