Mood Indigo

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In addition to blues tonality, improvisation, virtuosity, freedom in melodic phrasing, propulsive rhythm, and harmonic complexity, one of the defining characteristic of jazz is the way the standard jazz ensembles — the particular mix of instruments — sound together. This sound is called timbre. The distinctive timbre of early jazz comes from the use of brass instruments like the trumpet, cornet, and trombone. The rhythm was laid down either by an upright bass or by a tuba. The Dixieland ensembles also included clarinet, drums, piano, and banjo or mandolin.

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In the 1920s and 1930s, musically-literate jazz musicians began to put bands together and write out arrangements for them — a separate piece of sheet music, or “part,” for every instrumental section.  These arrangements were made to mimic the sound of Dixieland improvisation, but were in fact written out. Jelly Roll Morton was a pioneer in notated jazz; in his 1926 “Dead Man’s Blues,” he sought to imitate the sound of a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral.

In this way, composers and bandleaders like Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington created the “big band” sound. Ellington, a classically-trained pianist and composer, was especially interested in the different timbres/sounds he could get from various instrumental sections. In 1927, he and his band were hired as house band at the Cotton Club — a segregated speakeasy run by the Mafia, which barred Black patrons, but which was nevertheless the most prestigious venue for Black musicians.

Ellington’s piece “Mood Indigo” — which he claimed to have written in 15 minutes while waiting for his mother to finish cooking dinner — features Ellington on piano, followed by a muted trumpet-trombone-saxophone trio and then a clarinet solo, all of which lend different sounds to the piece. Ellington flips the standard practice of instrumental arranging by having the trombone — an instrument with a very low timbre — play high in its register, and the clarinet, an instrument that can play soaring high notes, play in the lowest part of its register.

Notice also that, while the orchestra is playing written-out parts, the clarinetist (Barney Bigard) takes a semi-improvised solo against the muted but lush and complex sonic background. This would become a hallmark of the big band sound.

What do you think the overall atmosphere of the piece is? What did Ellington mean by “Mood Indigo,” and how does he use instruments to convey that?

Lyricist Irving Mills later added lyrics, and the song became a jazz standard.

Bass player Charles Mingus’s arrangement. How is it different from Ellington’s?

Ella Fitzgerald sings it as a contemplative ballad:

Nina Simone plays and sings it as a gospel-inspired up-tempo:

The Spread of Jazz

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Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five. Armstrong’s wife, pianist Lil Hardin, is at far right, next to Armstrong.

The rise of recording and broadcasting technologies led to the spread of jazz from New Orleans to the urban centers of the North in the 1920s.

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Panel 1 of The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), showing Southern blacks boarding trains for the North.

What’s more, the Great Migration — the movement of millions of African-Americans from the rural South (where 90% of black Americans lived prior to 1915) to the urban centers of the North, which lasted roughly from 1916-1970 — further spread the jazz aesthetic. Chicago became a center of black American life following World War I, and an important  location for jazz recording.

In November 1925, trumpeter Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five made their first recordings for Okeh Records in Chicago. Armstrong’s ensemble was made up of New Orleans jazz musicians like himself; Armstrong had come to Chicago to play with Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.

The 1925 recording session resulted in “My Heart” and “Yes! I’m in the Barrel.” You can hear the transformation of Armstrong’s style as a player from his work with King Oliver’s band, where essentially all the musicians “soloed” their improvised melodic lines at the same time. In the Okeh recordings, Armstrong emerges as a soloist who bases his ornate improvisation figures on the harmonic progression of the music.

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Click on the link to view a transcription of Armstrong’s improvised solo on the 1927 recording of “Potato Head Blues.” You can hear his virtuosic improvisational style on the recording, set against the polyphonic sounds of his Hot Seven.

 

 

Origins of Jazz

Content/Trigger warning: Racist imagery and lyrics.

Among the origins of jazz are several overlapping musical genres that were popular at the end of the nineteenth century.

  1. Black musical theater, which, around the turn of the twentieth century, crossed color lines to become popular with white as well as black audiences.

Marti Newland singing “Swing Along,” a song from the musical theater show of the same name, by Will Marion Cook:

The overture to In Dahomey, also by Cook, the first full-length musical written and performed by African-Americans to play in a major Broadway theater (in 1903):

What musical styles do you recognize in these pieces?

2. “Coon songs,” written by both black and white composers, which portrayed black Americans in stereotypical and denigrating ways.

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Even Scott Joplin cashed in on the coon song craze with a song about a free black man in the North thinking fondly about his happy days as a slave in the South:

3. Ragtime, from which jazz got its emphasis on syncopation:

“Down Home Rag” by James Reese Europe, whose ensemble, James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra, were the first black band to receive a recording contract.

4. The rural blues: the semi-improvisatory way that the vocal line wanders freely over the steady rhythm of the guitar:

5. The cultural crossroads that was New Orleans, where the presence of both free and enslaved blacks and French, Spanish, Caribbean, and Creole (mixed French and African ancestry; Creoles were known as gens de couleur) populations created a unique mix of sounds. Jazz was a kind of mash-up of the orally/aurally-transmitted New Orleans black blues tradition with the classically-trained European traditions practiced by Creole musicians.

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Pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton (Ferdinand LeMothe, 1890-1941), one of the most famous and influential of the early Creole jazz musicians.

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Buddy Bolden (1877-1931), a Creole cornet player and bandleader whose skill at improvisation was legendary, and who fused blues, ragtime, gospel, and and marching-band music in his playing. He is credited with leading the first jazz (sometimes spelled “jass”) band in New Orleans.

Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (b. 1961) speaks about Bolden and plays an excerpt from one of his most famous compositions, “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” (originally known as “Funky Butt”).

The trailer for a 2019 film about Buddy Bolden:

Nevertheless, the New Orleans band that made the first jazz recordings, The Original Dixieland Jass Band, was all white.

Bandleader and cornetist Nick LaRocca, the son of Sicilian immigrants to New Orleans, went so far as to claim that

Jazz was strictly “white man’s music” and owed nothing to “the Negro race” or anything “coming from the jungles of Africa.” [La Rocca] should have known better.

Slaves dancing the calinda, Congo Square, New Orleans, early 19th century.

Go Down, Moses

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The first published version of the spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” in 1862, attributed its authorship to “The Contrabands” — escaped slaves who joined the Union Army — who probably sang it as a rallying cry, rather than as a hymn. The song had been known for at least 15 to 20 years prior to its publication.

Harriet Tubman (nicknamed “Moses” for having led hundreds of slaves to freedom) is supposed to have used “Go Down, Moses” as coded instructions for planned plantation breakouts, but music historian Dena J. Epstein calls this into question, noting:

“Go Down, Moses” was not a safe song to sing in the South, with its refrain of “Let my people go.”

Here it is referenced in the 2019 movie Harriet (mashed up with Nina Simone’s 1965 song “Sinnerman”):

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One of the earliest known recordings of the song, performed by a vocal quartet from the Tuskegee Institute in 1914, can be heard at the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox Project website.

The song was made popular by the great African-American bass Paul Robeson, in an art song arrangement probably by Harry T. Burleigh.

” Go Down, Moses” was used in the 1941 movie “Sullivan’s Travels,” in a scene where the protagonist has found himself on a prisoners’ chain gang during the Great Depression. The scene has many layers of meaning, resonance, and irony, as the story of the Hebrew slaves in Egyptian bondage is sung by a black congregation — the near descendants of enslaved people themselves — for a group of prisoners in chains.

In the 1955 movie “Blackboard Jungle,” the young Sidney Poitier leads a group of high school students in a rendition.

(Does this remind you of your high school?)

In the 1950s, “Go Down, Moses,” became popular as a jazz standard. In this 1958 recording, Louis Armstrong sings it as an uptempo with a full choir.

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It has also long been sung at American seders during the Jewish holiday of Passover. A black convert to Judaism writes:

The first time I heard a live rendition of “Go Down, Moses” was at the first Passover Seder I ever attended. Somewhere around the third cup of wine, a room full of Jews sang the classic negro spiritual in lively fashion, followed almost immediately by “O Freedom,” another classic negro spiritual.

A recording from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in the 1950s is affecting on a whole other level.

Zora Neale Hurston’s 1938 novel Moses: Man of the Mountain conflates the Biblical Moses with the Moses of black folklore. Read an excerpt here.

From Black Nationalism to Black Intergalacticism

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The visionary free jazz musician and Afrofuturist Sun Ra was a visiting artist and professor at the University of California-Berkeley in 1971. Here is fascinating audio from a lecture he gave in his Spring course, “The Black Man in the Cosmos.”

The reading list for his course:

The Egyptian Book of the Dead

The Radix: A New Way of Making Logarithms.

Alexander Hislop: The Two Babylons.

The Theosophical works of Madame Blavatsky.

The Book of Oahspe.

Henry Dumas: Ark of Bones.

Henry Dumas: Poetry for My People, eds. Hale Charfield & Eugene Redmond, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.

Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, eds. Leroi Jones & Larry Neal, New York: William Morrow, 1968.

David Livingstone: Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa.

Theodore P. Ford: God Wills the Negro.

Archibald Rutledge: God’s Children.

Stylus, vol. 13, no. 1 (Spring 1971) — a black literary journal published byTemple University in Philadelphia.

John S. Wilson: Jazz. Where It Came From, Where It’s At, United States Information Agency.

Yosef A. A. Ben-Jochannan: Black Man of the Nile and His Family, Alkibu Ian Books, 1972.

Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf, Comte de Volney: The Ruins, or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires, and the Law of Nature, London: Pioneer Press, 1921 (originally published 1791).

The Source Book of Man’s Life and Death (Ra’s description; = The King James Bible).

Pjotr Demianovitch Ouspensky: A New Model of the Universe. Principles of the Psychological Method in Its Application to Problems of Science, Religion and Art, New York: Knopf 1956.

Frederick Bodmer: The Loom of Language. An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages, ed. Lancelot Hogben, New York: Norton & Co. 1944.

Blackie’s Etymology.

As Ra said:

I’m talking about something that’s so impossible it can’t possibly be true.  But it’s the only way the world’s gonna survive, this impossible thing.  My job is to change five billion people to something else.  Totally impossible.  But everything that’s possible’s been done by men, I have to deal with the impossible.  And when I deal with the impossible and am successful, it makes me feel good because I know that I’m not bullshittin’.

Going Home

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The second movement of Dvorak’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”). What is the instrument that plays the poignant solo?

Dvorak Largo theme

It was thought that Dvorak took this melody from an African-American spiritual that his student and assistant, the composer Harry T. Burleigh, sang for him. 

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(For more on Harry T. Burleigh and his music, this is an excellent resource.)

However, Dvorak’s melody, though it may have been influenced by spirituals, was original. The melody was transcribed, set to text, and published as “Goin’ Home” by Dvorak’s pupil William Arms Fisher, who wrote in the preface to the published sheet music (using the typical language of the time):

The Largo, with its haunting English horn solo, is the outpouring of Dvorak’s own home-longing, with something of the loneliness of far-off prairie horizons, the faint memory of the red-man’s bygone days, and a sense of the tragedy of the black-man as it sings in his “spirituals.” Deeper still it is a moving expression of that nostalgia of the soul all human beings feel. That the lyric opening theme of the Largo should spontaneously suggest the words ‘Goin’ home, goin’ home’ is natural enough, and that the lines that follow the melody should take the form of a Negro spiritual accords with the genesis of the symphony.

“Goin’ Home” sung by the great American bass-baritone, actor, and Civil Rights activist Paul Robeson.

In the 1948 film “The Snake Pit,” which takes place in a psychiatric hospital; a band comes to play as entertainment for the inmates.

Sung by the Georgia Boy Choir:

Alex Boyé with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir:

Jazz pianist Art Tatum’s version from 1949.

Jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler included it on his 1964 album Swing Low Sweet Spiritual — reinforcing the theme’s similarity to a spiritual.

Operatic bass Soloman Howard in a version that swings.

Abigail Washburn, with the Silk Road Ensemble, which plays a mix of western and Asian instruments, singing it in Mandarin.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma plays it as a “song of comfort” at the height of the pandemic in March 2020 in the style of a down-home folk song.

Black Men Play (with) the Classics

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More cross-cultural encounters:

The great jazz pianist Jason Moran (above right) plays one of the late piano works of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), the Intermezzo op. 118 no. 2, with his trio, the Bandwagon.  Listen to what happens.

The piece as Brahms wrote it: