A few years ago writer Joe Milazzo hipped me to a sort of underground jazz history–That Devilin’ Tune, written by musician Allen Lowe. An impassioned, non-canonical, and smartly written work, it makes the case for many musicians who’ve been left by the wayside on the lost highway of American music. So many jazz histories telescope eras and artists, compacting a ragged and vital history into textbook-ready narratives, and Lowe’s book provides a fine corrective to such approaches. He also touches upon the volatile topic of race and historical interpretation with insight and flashes of wry wit; speaking of Richard Sudhalter’s controversial treatise Lost Chords, Lowe writes that Sudhalter “is right for all the wrong reasons.” He also gets off nice turns of phrase such as “Jack Teagarden’s blues-grilled lyricism.”
Now, as he did with his earlier book American Pop: From Minstrel to Mojo, Lowe has released a CD compendium to accompany his history. Four 9-CD box sets trace American jazz from the late 1890s up to 1950, taking blues, black vocal harmony, country, and immigrant musicians all into account. Jazz is a mongrel music, and Lowe gets at the heart of it much better than a number of better-known historians that I’ve read.
Recently I picked up all of the newly-released CD sets (you can buy them through Amazon or directly from Lowe himself), which comprise 36 discs in all. I wanted to post some reflections on the set, but that’s a lot of listening, even by fanatical-jazzbo standards. What I’m probably going to do is to listen to one disc each Saturday afternoon, and then write some brief remarks here. (Hey, it beats Friday-afternoon cat-blogging… not that I, who reside with four members of the feline variety under my roof, have anything against them.) Today I listened to disc 1 of the 1934-1945 V. 3 set. Here you’ll find the exuberant swing of Chick Webb’s mid-1930s band, the relentless propulsion of Casa Loma, the already-modern sounds of Red Norvo (the same group that did a wonderful version in 1933 of Bix Beiderbecke’s “In a Mist”), and the overlooked contributions of artists such as Ray Noble (composer of “Cherokee” and “The Very Thought of You”) and Hal Kemp (routinely relegated to the sweet/dance echelon). Proto-hipster Mezz Mezzrow checks in with “Sendin’ the Vipers”, and we also hear from pianist/singer Cleo Brown (who’ll be heard from again in a spring 2008 Night Lights program).
Each 9-CD set also contains roughly a fourth of the book That Devilin’ Tune, making the collections an even better buy. Lowe observes that most arbiters of jazz history “take the path of least chronological resistance” and that the stratification we now see not only in popular music, but in jazz itself, had its roots in the 1930s–the age in which jazz, he argues, lost its “commercial innocence.” The best thing about both the book and the Devilin’ Tune collections is that they make you listen harder to recordings you already know (as well as introducing you to many you probably don’t know) and rethink your conception of jazz history.
Lowe has also written a book on 1950s jazz, which has yet to see publication. In the meantime, we’ll be spinning more from That Devilin’ Tune every Saturday afternoon.