Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Mr. Satch and Mr. Cros - Will Friedwald on Jazz Singing

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

Mention Jazz singing in the context of books on the subject and the name “Will Friedwald” immediately springs up, no doubt because many Jazz fans consider him to be the ranking authority on the subject.

Whether it's Bessie, Bailey or Billie; Teagarden, Turner or Torme; Will is the “go to” guy for information on all aspects of Jazz Singing - not to mention - his definitive writings on Frank Sinatra.

If you think about it, it’s kind of tragic that the two men largely responsible for much of the vocal direction in American Popular Music in the 20th century are largely forgotten these days.

With Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby in mind, I went to Will's seminal Jazz Singing: America’s Great Voices From Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond, and found these thoughts by him on the significance of Pops and Der Bingle.

“Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, the two most important figures in jazz-derived popular singing, both went to their graves without the world knowing when they were born. Only in a 1988 Village Voice article did Gary Giddins, author of Satchmo (New York: Dolphin, Doubleday, 1989), the finest study of Armstrong yet, reveal that the date of Armstrong's birth was August 4, 1901, and only in the eighties did Ken Twiss, president of the Bing Crosby Historical Society, prove beyond all doubt that Crosby was born on May 3, 1903 (baptismal certificates held the answer in both instances).

We know also that both came from poor families— Armstrong's hardly a family at all. In the late forties, when Crosby was seen as the ultimate American everyman, the writers of his broadcasts and his press releases tried to create a middle-class background for him. Ironically, this was the one stratum to which he had never belonged. Raised at near-poverty level in Tacoma, Washington, he became one of the wealthiest men in show business before he was forty. Crosby's father, when he worked, held down a job in a brewery and was barely able to support his wife, seven children (of which Bing—originally Harry—was the fourth), and the various other relatives who lived with them. Crosby later admitted that while his father succeeded in feeding and sheltering them all, the children had to work for everything else, including clothes, shoes, and school-books. Armstrong's upbringing was even bleaker. He was raised in the most squalid, desolate area of New Orleans—it would make a contemporary black ghetto seem like Shangri-la by comparison—by a mother who was barely around. His father wasn't there at all.

Both men became attracted to music and entertainment early on and each grew up determined to make it his career. In New Orleans' Negro red light district, where Armstrong was born and raised and where diversions of every sort were the principal trade, even danger (to use Armstrong's metaphor) "was dancing all around you then." "Little Louis" sang in a vocal quartet in his early teens; no casual affair this, since there was money to be made by poor boys on the Storyville streets and almost no place else. Armstrong's group faced much competition and had to rehearse and make an informal study of harmony and part-singing. "He could sing real well, too," remembered Peter Davis, bandleader in the Colored Waif's Home where the teen-aged Armstrong learned to play cornet, "even though his voice was coarse."

From the beginning, Armstrong's interest in singing and songs equaled his enthusiasm for the cornet and instrumental jazz, the music he more than anyone else would turn into a international art form. Shortly after leaving the orphanage, in fact, Armstrong composed what would later become the popular standard "I Wish I Could Shimmy like My Sister Kate." Still, for the next dozen or so years of his life, singing took a backseat to the trumpet.

His rise to the top of the New Orleans music scene, though not overnight, occurred quickly, and over the next few years he played with virtually all the major bands in the city, including Fate Marable's riverboat groups and Kid Ory's. In 1922, Armstrong's mentor, King Oliver, invited him to work with his Creole Jazz Band in Chicago, and after playing and recording with Oliver for over a year, Armstrong moved into what, thanks largely to him, would become the most important early-jazz big band, Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra. Armstrong had recorded dozens of discs as a sideman with Oliver, Henderson, Clarence Williams, and a dozen or so blues singers (including the greatest, Bessie Smith) by the time he began his most important series of records in 1925. Collectively known as the Hot Fives, a term that refers to all the small-group sessions under Armstrong's leadership between 1925 and 1928, these are by general consensus the most influential of Armstrong's accomplishments and quite likely the most significant body of work in all jazz.

Here he changes the face of jazz on every conceivable level: Rhythmically, he establishes the soon-to-be standard 4/4 "swing" tempo; structurally, he solidifies use of the theme-solos-theme format; conceptually, he defines the idea of jazz itself with the soloist at the center, from playing short, simple "breaks" of slight melodic embellishments to fully improvised chord-based solos of a whole chorus or longer. And in the strategy he describes as progressing from the melody to routine-ing the melody to routine-ing the routine, he sets down the basic model as well as the vocabulary most, if not all, jazz soloists would use from then on. Even before 1928, Armstrong's achievements begin to elevate from a purely musical plane to a social one, as he launches the shifts in the music that would enable it to become both a high-brow art form and an international pop entertainment. To use Lester Bowie's phrase, Louis Armstrong created "jazz as we know it."

How to top an act like that? For Armstrong, the logical next step after reinventing jazz was to reinvent popular music in his own image—to apply his discoveries as a jazz musician to mass-market pop. To speak diagrammatically, from 1929 onward Armstrong works just as hard at expanding outwardly as a performer as he had at growing upwardly from 1925 to 1928, the years of the Hot Fives. The opinion of some of his critics to the contrary, this expansion did nothing to lessen the internal content of Armstrong's art; it altered his music only in terms of its outward manifestations in three specific areas: On records especially, Armstrong now works almost exclusively with big dance bands as opposed to Hot Fives and Sevens; he concentrates more on popular songs instead of original compositions and material out of the jazz tradition; and he gives equal time to singing.

To be sure, Armstrong had sung quite a bit on his earlier small-band records, his vocals on these coming off more like a direct extension of his horn work than the other way around (as was actually the case). On "Hotter Than That" (1927) and "West End Blues" (1928), for example, Armstrong experiments with transposing the functions of the voice and the trumpet: He trades call-and-response phrases with another musician, but sings back his answers where you expect him to play them.

Armstrong also sings a trumpet-style obbligato behind Lillie Delk Christian, the main vocalist on "Too Busy" (1928). Many Hot Five sides also contain stop-time breaks sung instead of played, but the most revealing glimpses into the future occur on Armstrong's longer scat choruses. As we have seen, Cliff Edwards had been the first to apply scat to pop singing, and he had done as much as it was possible to do with the technique in the pre-Armstrong world. Armstrong not only brought scatting into his universe, he devised new contexts for it. "Heebie Jeebies" (1926), the most celebrated of his vocal improvisations, transliterated patterns Armstrong had conceived for instrumental music very directly into vocal terms, starting with lyrics, then modulating into scat phrases, and returning to the words at the conclusion, which all lends credence to the trumped-up tale of the record's scat sequence not being deliberate (as rehashed by Armstrong and Crosby in the broadcast excerpt at the beginning of this chapter). No one could make such a claim with Armstrong's two equally remarkable 1928 scat vocals, "Basin Street Blues" and "Squeeze Me"; so in place of an extra musical explanation, Armstrong "excuses" his scat episodes by having two other members of the band hum in harmony behind him—as if to somehow normalize them. In doing so, Armstrong unearths the folk origins of each tune, investigating what they might have sounded like before W. C, Handy and Clarence Williams codified them into song form.

Other indications of things to come can be found on his more or less conventional vocal refrains. There's the monumental sense of humor that produced the comic duet of Mr. and Mrs. Lil Armstrong (then also his pianist) on "That's When I'll Come Back to You," and the mastery of the blues in spirit and form on "I'm Not Rough" {both 1927), which contains the single most powerful blues ever sung by a man (or anyone besides Bessie Smith) in this period, authenticated by the presence of blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson, here serving as guest accompanist.

By 1929, Armstrong had all the elements necessary to become a great singer. The next move in the evolution of jazz-influenced popular singing would then be a matter of integration. Fortunately (as Armstrong once later said of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke), Bing Crosby happened to be "working on the same thing."

The story of Crosby giving up law school to play drums and sing in a jazz band ("I'd rather sing than eat," he reportedly told his disappointed parents) and the one about his trip from his native Washington to find big-time showbiz in Los Angeles in a beat-up old jalopy, are as much a part of the mythology of popular music as the tale of little Louis Armstrong firing a gun and winding up in the orphanage is to that of jazz.

A few months after Armstrong cut "Heebie Jeebies" in 1926, Paul Whiteman, who had been one of the first popular bandleaders to show an interest in jazz and, as we have seen, in vocalists, hired Crosby and his partner, Al Rinker, as the industry's first full-time recording band singers. The mere act of signing on someone who did nothing but sing seemed strange enough in those days, but the choice of Crosby proved to be nothing less than radical. Crosby did not fit into either of the two molds that had been established for non-classical singers by this point. He was not a noisy Jolson clone like Billy Murray or Irving Kaufman. Nor did he act like the equally affected zombies of the early post-microphone period, like Ruth Etting, Whispering Jack Smith, and Gene Austin, who overdid the understatements to such a degree that they were even farther away from jazz than the belters had been. Even his voice, a steadily deepening baritone with a husky rasp and an occasional trill, sounded as far removed from the popular tenors and falsettos of the time as Armstrong's vocal gravel pit.

The pop music world must have wondered what Whiteman saw in Crosby. My guess is that Whiteman realized that Crosby had the potential ability to accomplish one of the basic functions of an artist, one that was particularly germane to what Whiteman himself aspired to: to recognize what was valid in contemporary popular music, to preserve the best parts of it, and to integrate them all into a cohesive whole by filtering them through his own personality. Integration, in fact, represents the single most important element of Crosby's accomplishments. In this sense, integration means more than a union of African and American elements; it means art as a whole being, as a series of connections, of making seemingly disparate forms fit together in new ways. And in the traditional sense, integration signifies the single most crucial element of American music, the very basis of its existence.

In Crosby's earliest recordings, made with the Whiteman orchestra, Crosby puts together the various ingredients as if they were pieces in a jigsaw puzzle; but in each case, what Crosby adds of his own is equally important. The classic blues singers, especially the phonetically correct but no less blue Ethel Waters (who, in turn, would learn a thing from both Armstrong and Crosby), had already adapted blues feeling to the harmonic practices of Western music, but not, as Crosby did, to the American pop song. Jolson and Marion Harris provided a model for energetic charisma and the concept of black imitation, but Crosby would firstly remove all traces of the minstrel show, fitting and Austin and the other early microphone singers demonstrated how the new electric recording technique could be used, but left it to Crosby to prove that subtlety didn't have to mean somnambulance.

Edwards had demonstrated the relevance of scatting to pop singing but never really developed it as Crosby and Armstrong would, simultaneously taking the technique forward into the new world of post-Armstrong rhythm. Most importantly, Crosby absorbed the new instrumental soloists, especially Armstrong and, to a lesser extent, Beiderbecke: their approach to melodic organization, their use of rhythm, and their concept and vocabulary of improvisation.

Crosby's greatest accomplishment—the result of all this alchemy—was the application of jazz to the music of Tin Pan Alley. The significance of "hot" music to ballads, in particular, had been a nut that no one had been able to crack, especially vocally. Certainly Crosby's assimilation of Armstrong's rhythmic advances gave him a major jump on the competition. On White-man's records of "I'm Afraid of You" (1928, Victor) and "T'aint So, Honey, T'aint So" (1928, Columbia), he introduces the device of holding notes at the end of phrases as a means of playing with the time. On "Make Believe" (1928, Victor), Crosby goes even farther, leaving his colleagues in the orchestra behind. To reduce the risk of the elephantine Whiteman entourage getting in his way, the strings and the horns lay out while Crosby takes his chorus with just the rhythm section. And not even all of them: The piano, banjo, and drums keep fairly quiet while Crosby performs what amounts to a duet with the band's New Orleanian string bassist, Steve Brown.  While the piano, banjo, drums, and Whiteman's other bass (tuba actually) churn out dated oom-pah chunks, Crosby and Brown genuinely swing and at times they even ease into surprisingly modern 4/4 time. (Brown later described this time signature as one of the cornerstone elements of "modern" jazz.)

The success of the other half of Crosby's achievement, his use of lower pitches, can't be explained in strictly musical terms. The twenties were great years for "naturalism," but their idea of natural differed drastically from any that has come since—and Crosby represents the line of demarcation. He was the one who came up with the kind of "natural" that worked: the warm B-flat baritone with a little hair on it, the perfect balance between conversational and purely musical singing, the personality and the character. Crosby was the first singer to truly glorify and exalt the American popular melody, and his deep, perfectly intone resonance gave American music the wherewithal at last to compete with (and, in my ears at least, surpass) opera and the European art-song tradition. It became the sound that defined generation after generation of pop singing, largely because of its jazz origins: The single most identifiable characteristic of Crosby's style, in fact, was as a jazz device, namely, the use of trills and what classical music crit Henry Pleasants describes as mordants or satellite notes, which serve as grace notes* or syncopes employed to break up the time.

This takes us ahead of our story but not by all that much. Once Crosby had conquered the new rhythm, all the other elements began to fall into place; after 1929, both he and Armstrong could finally perform jazz-ballads that meet all the requirements of both sides of the hyphen. While Crosby's earliest solo outings (outside dance-band refrains and vocal groups), such as "Till We Meet" (1929, Columbia), reveal a not-surprising apprehension about how he's going to fill all two hundred seconds by himself, his later vocal refrains, like "Oh! Miss Hannah," "Waiting at the End of the Road" (both with Whiteman [both 1929, Columbia]), and "It Must Be True" (with Gus Arnheim's Coconut Grove Orchestra [1930, Victor]) show considerable progress and characteristic confidence.

Simultaneously, Armstrong's 1929 recordings, especially "I Ain't Got Nobody" and "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" (Okeh), show that interpreting lyrics is gradually becoming as important to him as scarring, though at this early stage his vocals still serve as mere interludes between more crucial trumpet solos. Armstrong's 1930 "I'm Confessin' " (Okeh), selected by Gary Giddins as the Armstrong record that most strongly reflects Crosby's reciprocated influence, represents a milestone of the latest stages of the new art's development Armstrong gives out with as many Bing-ish trills and extended line-ending notes as he does his own devices, like roars, repeated phrases, and personal interjections, playing off the guitar accompaniment in the same manner that Crosby had done with his guitarist, Eddie Lang. (Armstrong's November 1931 "Star Dust" includes a line of "boo-boo-boo"-ing inspired by Crosby's May 1931 record of "Just One More Chance.")

The early thirties saw the Crosby and Armstrong styles at their most convergent, although their individual personalities were strong enough to pull them away before too long. Nevertheless, they would retain enough of their mutually developed bag of tricks to make their later performances together high points of both careers. More importantly, now that they had put all the pieces together, no man could tear them asunder, and hundreds and hundreds of singers, arrangers, and songwriters would use the vocabulary developed by Armstrong and Crosby in the late twenties and early thirties. The spread of the new language was hastened by the rising popularity of each man in two of the only cases in Western history where an artist's fame and fortune came to equal his talent. They were so perfectly a part of their time and culture. By the mid-1930s all of the problems had been solved. …”


  1. I enjoyed this article. I'm more of a fan of Louis than Crosby.

  2. A great read... never had considered the parallels. Thank you...

  3. Two of the greatest champions of the truest American art form who reimagined the great American songbook and took it to new heights never reached before or since.


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