On Structural Compromises, Anatomical Detail, and Muttering “Hotcha"
1. Bessie Smith, Organ and Cornet Accomp.: “The St. Louis Blues”
Recognized even in its moment as the shining cathedral of the First Age of Jazz, the marvel of this record only increases as we drift further from it in time. W. C. Handy’s structural compromises underlie everything, of course: timeless blues verses jury-rigged to a Tin Pan Alley middle eight, dateline 1914. Then there’s Fred Longshaw’s stately harmonium, enveloping the lament in funereal bathos while lending it churchly grandeur; and Louis Armstrong’s bright winding cornet, offering peppery comment and owl-wise commentary on the lyrics. But the center is Bessie Smith’s heroic bawl of a voice, eternal and true. It had been the blues scrubbed palatable for white folks way back in ’14, but Black genius made it forever their own. [...]
2. Fred Longshaw: “Chili Pepper”
The only record Fred Longshaw cut under his own name included this dazzling piano workout, halfway between the intricacies of stride and the jungle funk of boogie-woogie (the more conventionally ragtime “Tomato Sauce” was the B-side). Longshaw was the leader of Bessie Smith’s touring orchestra, and a mildly successful songwriter in his own right, but his lasting legacy would be the 20 or so sides on which he supported more famous performers: Smith, Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Lonnie Johnson. 1925 was just the beginning of the glory years of solo piano recordings as a coherent pop form, offering three-minute slices of thrill in a way entirely unimaginable today, now that the piano means history and formalism rather than flashy modernity.
3. Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five: “Gut Bucket Blues”
We’ve heard him as sideman and soloist on records for two years, but he steps into the bandleader role here, and will never look back. Shouting out his bandmates Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), Kid Ory (trombone), Lil Hardin (piano), Johnny Dodds (clarinet) while they play down and dirty solos just as casually and funkily as if he were emceeing a New Orleans gig rather than the formal studio environs, he’s a giddy delight. Then, satisfied with their greasy run-throughs, he finally takes a mellifluous trumpet solo and is shouted out himself, presumably by Ory. The final chorus is a duet with Dodds, who has switched to alto sax: from stank to swank, a portrait in miniature of jazz to date.
4. Naftule Brandwein’s Orchestra: “Naftule, shpiel es noch amol”
Meanwhile, the sun begins to set on the recording career of another peerless, genre-defining instrumentalist who made New York his adopted home in his twenties. “Naftule, Play It Again” finds the fiery, unpredictable clarinetist in a reflective mood, running through variations of his own devising rather than playing a standard dance in what would later be described as the klezmer canon. His band chants the title to him, the trombone smears and the woodblock rattles in an old-fashioned ragtime style, a ragtime to which he had grafted the whirls and ecstasies of Bessarabian freilach music, a ragtime which is now disappearing from the New York streets as the generations shift and a newer, flashier, more controlled music takes the stage.
5. Joseph Cherniavsky and his Yiddish-American Jazz Band: “Chasene niginim”
Brandwein had played in Jewish Polish violinist and composer Joseph Cherniavsky’s ensemble before forming his own orchestra where he could be the star: his replacement was his junior by ten years. Dovid Tarraschuk, a Ukrainian-born musician, had played in the Tsar’s army before escaping to New York after the Revolution and renaming himself Dave Tarras. Cherniavsky, too, was classically trained—his violin teacher had been Mischa Elman’s—and he was in demand in the booming Yiddish theater scene of the Twenties. This recording is subtitled “incidental music from Ansky’s ‘The Dibbuk’,” and as a portrayal of a wedding ceremony gone horrific in the classic Gothic Yiddish play, it’s little short of masterful, as Tarras’ keening clarinet whirls with regimental precision.
6. Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra: “Charleston”
The pinnacle, in several ways, of dance-band recording during the 1920s. Composed by underacknowledged genius of Black music James P. Johnson, “The Charleston” was introduced in the all-Black musical Runnin’ Wild, giving musical formalization to moves with long roots in Black vernacular dance: the Charleston would become the signature dance of the Twenties, beloved and reviled by all the right (and wrong) people. The record, though, is more even than that: a perfectly-balanced artifact of state-of-the-art technology, one of the first great electrical recordings, as shown off by the anonymous voice muttering “hotcha” close to the mike, the kind of under-the-breath vocals which would never have been picked up by an acoustic horn. Ferd Grofé’s lush, hall-of-mirrors orchestration is gravy.
7. Al Jolson with Carl Fenton's Orchestra: “I’m Sitting On Top of the World”
It’s been years since we’ve heard from Mr. Jolson in these pages, which doesn’t mean he wasn’t one of the biggest stars on the planet throughout. But although his live shows were still electric thanks to his dynamism and raw talent for entertainment, he was no longer the startling thunderbolt of the 1910s, but a known quantity, easily parodied and harder to integrate into the rapidly-evolving jazz spirit of the era. Why see him black up on the Great White Way when you could just as easily carry on up to Harlem and see the real thing? This Tin Pan Alley fluff represents his compromise with the period: jaunty (white) optimism, rather than self-parodic (minstrel) sentimentality, was the way forward.
8. Eddie Cantor: “If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie)”
Eddie Cantor, though, could still play the juvenile. Better acquainted with the spirit of the age, he'd limited his blacking up by now—after playing Bert Williams’ son, there was nowhere left to go—and his nervous schlemiel delivery was a perfect fit for the fast-paced syncopated pep of the period’s pop. As a record, “Susie” is as daring as US pop got in 1925, the upward trombone smears responding lasciviously to Cantor’s half-frightened, half-orgasmic “oh!”s, and lyrics about a liberated flapper with none of the standard fig leaves insisting on her chastity. It’s still a wholly adolescent version of sexuality, but the literary half of the nation was coming to grips with adolescent sexuality, thanks to Scott Fitzgerald.
9. Lee Morse and Her Blue Grass Boys: “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”
But though Eddie Cantor still played the juvenile, he was by this time a family man. The legend is that another of the decade’s signature pep-fueled tunes was written when songwriters Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn visited the Cantor home and were taken by the herky-jerky rhythms of one of his daughter’s mechanical toys. But though the Donaldson-Kahn team is important to history, it’s the singer who demands attention. With her unique sobbing delivery and the unrestrained vocalese which leads her to shriek a trumpet line decades before Stan Kenton, she is one of the major if under-recognized singers of the century, a missing link between the refined showbiz traditions of yore and the honky-tonk and rock n’ roll to come.
10. Ethel Waters: “Dinah”
After Jolson and Cantor had finished wowing ’em in the packed theaters, patrons of the Broadway temples would flock to the late-night supper-clubs where jazzier (read: Blacker) sounds prevailed. Even at that, the Plantation, atop the Winter Garden Theatre at Broadway and 50th, was something special: decorated like an Art Deco dream of minstrelsy, it was normally ruled by Florence Mills, but when she jaunted off to England in 1925, Ethel Waters was her hand-picked replacement. “Dinah” was introduced there, a sort of minstrel echo: the Southern locale, the longing for reunion, the Dixie eyes were all vintage Stephen Foster. But the focus on romantic desire rather than poisonous nostalgia, and the no-fooling tenderness of Waters’ delivery, wash it clean.
11. Art Gillham: “Hesitation Blues”
It’s fitting that the first person to cut an electrically-recorded side for a major label was what a later generation would call a hipster, even, in Norman Mailer’s curdled phrase, a white Negro. When Art Gillham and two St. Louis cronies decided to join a band and light out for Los Angeles, they passed the long dull train ride by composing new verses in a standard blues formula. The resultant sheet music, a novelty with little relation to actual blues, had circulated for eight years when he sang it on the radio on a dare. Gillham’s thin, quavery voice, “hesitating” piano style, and soft drawl was startlingly intimate on the radio, but couldn’t be recorded acoustically: crooning, too, is faux-Black.
12.Ramoncita Rovira: “Fumando espero”
The first of this year’s records not recorded in New York, it is an important landmark in two nations’ musical history. A tango about the consolations of tobacco compared to a lover who leaves his lady waiting, written by two Barcelonans for the daring Spanish stage of the 1920s, it would have a long life both in its home country and in Argentina, where it was quickly adopted by the generation of tangueros interested in creating a more personal, modern, and psychological tango. But its most famous Spanish incarnations during the Franco years would omit the verse which suggested that the smoking was post-coital, intact in this first recording by one of the greatest Catalan stars of copla, Spanish music-hall.
13. Agustín Magaldi: “Canillita canillita”
From modern, international, psychological tango to traditional sentimental street-level tango: “Canillita canillita” is in the tradition of “Minguito” from all the way back in 1911, a tear-jerking song about a newspaper-selling urchin (“canillita” is slang for newsie) without a home to return to, and who, like the flower to which he is compared, is fated to die early. Magaldi is one of the first male voices to launch a serious challenge to the dominance of Carlos Gardel in the arena of tango recording: he was an avowed sentimentalist, a crooner whose sobbing delivery, as in the final chorus here, was not limited to tangos, but won popularity with the Buenos Aires public in waltzes and rural gaucho songs as well.
14. Ignacio Corsini: “Luna gaucha”
The other great challenger to the crown of Gardel was Ignacio Corsini, born in Italy but raised in rural Argentina, who claimed his falsetto was learned from the birds of the pampas. Written by two Uruguayans, José María Aguilar and Atilio Supparo, “Luna gaucha” isn’t a native pampas song, but the Argentine equivalent of a Tin Pan Alley song about the true hearts that beat only for each other out west of the Mississippi. It’s hokum on the page, but Corsini’s singing abjures sentimentality á là Magaldi: although the lyrics paint flashes of a picturesque tryst by moonlight, his dispassionate voice reminds the listener that it is all taking place under the cover of darkness, and to fear the worst.
15. Carl T. Sprague: “When the Work’s All Done This Fall”
The North American cowboy, meanwhile, was much more of a sentimentalist in fact than in fiction: although the dime-novel and movie legend made him invariably lantern-jawed and masculinely stoic, the songs sung at prairie campfires were as sentimental as any sung in the nineteenth century. Witness Carl T. Sprague, genuine cowpuncher from Texas, whose debut recording is a tearjerker about a boy on a cattle drive who takes a fall from a horse and (cue waterworks) will not now see his mother back in Dixie as he planned once the driving season was over. True, Sprague doesn’t milk the pathos: the corrido-like insistence of the guitar keeps too strict time for that. But the song itself is purest parlor mush.
16. Ernest V. Stoneman: “The Titanic”
The cowboy, legend aside, was part of a broader society, a relative cosmopolitan as comfortable in the Midwestern stockyards as on the Southwestern range. The Appalachian poor, by contrast, were much more isolated and so their music was more eccentric and identifiably regional—yet it too was not unaffected by the outside world. Ernest Stoneman, patriarch of a musical family which would be eclipsed by another of his own discovery, gives a grave reading of a folksong (likely originally Black American) about the thirteen-year-old tragedy which has been a symbol of the hubris of technocratic Western Civilization ever since; his flinty voice accompanied by autoharp and harmonica, he sounds neither sunk in bathos nor stern in judgment, merely a witness.
17. Uncle Dave Macon: “Old Dan Tucker”
Pay attention to his spoken introduction. “I used to just play the imitations, but now I’m going to give you the variations” is as succinct a description of what happened in American music between 1885 and 1925 as any other: though Uncle Dave would surely have disclaimed any relationship to jazz, his giddy, chalky version of the primordial minstrel tune (“Old Dan Tucker” was the signature hit of the Virginia Minstrels, the original Irish-American blackface troupe who were the rock stars of the 1840s), introduced by a few clawhammer bars of “Casey Jones,” is perhaps the closest recorded music comes to hearing the original American sin and salvation, white imitating Black imitating white imitating Black, all the way to Perdition.
18. Papa Charlie Jackson: “Shake That Thing”
Another monumental first slides in here: the first male self-accompanied blues singer, a formulation which will come to eclipse the actually-original female blues singer in the popular imagination, as the blues get fenced off from pop music, and as pop music becomes just another stick with which to beat women. But this song too is pop: Ethel Waters and Clarence Williams covered it the same year, and it would come to be a standard in the years when rhythm was grafted onto blues. Not that Papa Charlie, who was born in New Orleans and latterly a resident of Chicago, doesn’t have plenty of rhythm all on his own: his banjo, strummed rather than plucked, is sharp as an electric guitar.
19. Sexteto Habanero: “Maldita timidez”
Just as monumental is the first recording of a Cuban son sexteto, the format by which the son (later to be misnamed rumba in the US) became not just the dominant music of Cuba but one of the peerless musics of the world. The Sexteto Habanero was founded in 1920, led by bassist Gerardo Martínez (though it sounds like he may be playing the traditional botija, or musical water-jug, here); the other instruments were guitar, tres, maracas, bongo, and clave. The heavily polyrhythmic nature of son music makes it one of the most African of Afro-Latin musics, but the dreamy melody by composer Carlos Valdez Brito, sounding here in strings and vocals, make it also one of the most beautiful.
20. Fernando e o coro do Jazz Band Sul Americano de Romeu Silva: “Corta saia (É lá)”
The greatest composer of what might be called the prehistory of samba, Sinhô (José Barbosa de Silva), has not been heard here since 1917’s landmark “Pelo telefone.” But as the Twenties march on, the comic bestiary in the lyrics of carnaval samba “Corta saia (É lá),” or “Short skirt (there it is),” suggests newer freedoms, which may not just be limited to the topsy-turvy world of Carnaval in future. The band led by Romeu Silva was one of the most popular Brazilian orchestras of the period, only “jazz” in the broader international sense which meant any modern vernacular dance music: singer Fernando de Albuquerque is cheerful but anonymous, soon to be displaced by savvier, smoother, and more streetwise samba voices.
21. Maurice Chevalier: “Valentine”
No nation was more eager to embrace the new freedoms symbolized by the Twenties than France. Maurice Chevalier, all of thirty-seven in 1925, had by now entirely grown into the persona of the dapper, whimsically elegiac roué he was to inhabit for the rest of his career. “Valentine” is one of the signature tunes of that career, a nostalgic look back at a middle-aged man’s first love affair, with lyrics far more anatomically detailed than anything that would be recorded for mass consumption in English for another forty years. That it wasn’t scandalous, just one of the many cabaret hits of the day, is symbolic of the reasons why US writers hoping to escape Puritanism and commercialism flocked to Paris.
22. Mounira al-Madiyyah: “El-kukayīn”
Differences in permissibility of subject matter are cultural far more than they are moral: here, the brightest star of Egyptian light theatrical entertainment sings a comic, slangy song about the joys and miseries of cocaine written for a topical revue in 1919 by the late Sayyed Darwish. The chemical isolate of the coca leaf had been manufactured since the 1860s, but it was only in the early 1900s that Western authorities, prompted by highly racialized fears, began to crack down on its distribution and sale as a dietary supplement like tobacco, caffeine or alcohol. The streets of Cairo, of course, needed no Washington or London jurisprudence to intone gravely about trafficking, addiction and overdoses: as Mounira sings, ain’t life funny.
23. Tamara Tsereteli: “Dorogoi dlinnoyu”
The chaotic early Soviet period, in which nobody yet knew what was Marxianly permissible, saw one of the most prolific, ingenious, and bitterly contested artistic flowerings in the twentieth century, a chaos that would all too soon be brought to close by the idiosyncratic but brutally enforced aesthetics of the Stalin era. This nostalgic romans (later known to the West as “Those Were the Days”), with its dreamy memories of old sleigh rides, would become famous as an exile’s anthem when Alexander Vertinsky recorded it in Paris in 1926, but the first recording was by the Georgian-born contralto in good standing with the regime Tamara Tsereteli. Anyone, even a Marxist-Leninist, can feel sorrow for days which will never come again.
24. Gertrude Lawrence: “Poor Little Rich Girl”
1924 had been the annus mirabilis of George Gershwin, and if 1925 wasn’t the annus mirabilis of a singer-actor-composer-lyricist-impresario-wit born in the London suburbs a year after Gershwin, it wasn’t for lack of trying. He’d been writing and staging shows since 1918, but in 1925 four separate musicals plus straight drama The Vortex all premiered in the West End, while he and his songs took center stage in André Charlot’s revue on Broadway. Ingenue Alice Delysia introduced this song in On with the Dance, but it was Gertrude Lawrence, Noël Coward’s no-nonsense muse, who gave the definitively straight-faced reading of a lyric which applies music-hall puns to crushing condescension toward the glib jazz-hungry posturing of Britain’s aristocratic Bright Young Things.
25. Marcelle Meyer: “Trois mouvements perpétuels”
Exactly halfway through 1925, the brilliant, eccentric French composer Erik Satie died. His music will remain a touchstone throughout the century to come, but as of his death was limited to published sheet music and live performance. One of his favored pianists, however, did record in 1925 this performance of a work deeply influenced by Satie. Self-consciously fragmentary and airily melodic, Francis Poulenc’s early, irreverent work (the pun in the title is lost in English) is among the most delightful in the French canon. Like the rest of the modernist collective Les Six, some of whose work will appear here in years to come, his debt to impish Satie is enormous, but there are also surprisingly solemn glimpses of eternity.