This September Ken Burns’ new PBS series The War will be broadcast around the country, prompting the usual media firestorm of attention that accompanies any new Burns production. Such blockbuster programs tend to leave a kind of coffeetable-book closure effect in their wake, and that effect may be even more pronounced with this particular series, given that the generation which experienced World War II is rapidly passing away. I’ll be interested to see what Burns presents about the aftermath of the war on the American homefront–the mid-to-late years of the 1940s, which seem to have been filled with a fair share of uncertainty, anxiety, and other moods that were less than victoriously ebullient. (The movie The Best Years of Our Lives does a good job of putting across the difficulties of homecoming for everyone.) The divorce rate spiked in 1946, there was a housing shortage, a recession, the beginnings of the Cold War and McCarthyism… and also the realization that we now possessed a weapon capable of destroying humanity. Weird nightmare, indeed!
The above reflections were prompted by the first several discs of Allen Lowe’s historical jazz project, That Devilin’ Tune, V. 4: 1946-1951. I’ve mentioned it before, with the intent of listening to 1-2 discs each weekend and then posting some thoughts here. There’s simply far too much interesting music, and interesting commentary from Lowe himself, to do justice to this series in a single post. The breadth of jazz represented here is astonishing and reveals the vitality that suffused the postwar scene in general. (Lowe notes in the booklet that “the music was moving like an express train.”) You’ll find New Orleans revivalism, progressive big band, jump blues, bebop, Western swing, and jazz/pop vocals of the day, ordered with an uncanny sense of flow; I ended up listening to each of the first five discs from V. 4 three times apiece. It amounts to Allen Lowe’s personal iPod tour of the late-1940s musical landscape–a place and time just beginning to absorb and reflect the irrevocable changes wrought by the global conflict that preceded it.
Compilations are usually anathema to jazz connoisseurs, aficionados, and like-minded fanatics. They connote a daytripper’s dabbling, a casual weekend purchase at Borders by somebody who simply wants some Jazz to Read the NY Times By. The sheer scope of the Devilin’ Tune project puts it safely out of such realms, but longtime listeners who have undoubtedly heard a number of these tracks before may find unexpected pleasure in hearing, say, Dodo Marmarosa’s “Dodo’s Bounce” followed by Harry the Hipster Gibson’s “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine,” Fats Navarro’s “Boperation” as a warmup for Tommy Duncan’s “Wrong Road Blues,” or Hadda Brooks’ “Out of the Blue” coolly on the heels of the Dave Brubeck Octet’s “I Hear a Rhapsody.” Highly recommended for anybody who needs to rejuvenate a pair of jaded jazz ears. (The sound on these sets, btw, is fantastic. Clearly a labor of love for Mr. Lowe on all fronts.)
This volume covers the glory days of the Central Avenue scene, including Nellie Lutcher and Charles Mingus (“This Subdues My Passion,” recorded in May of 1946, strikes me as one of the best examples of the dreamy hangover music this period affords), the explosion of bop, jazz jivers such as Harry the Hipster Gibson and Jo Jo Adams (who both owed much to Slim Gaillard and Cab Calloway), the proto-cool of the young Dave Brubeck’s West Coast explorations, and the big-band noir of Raymond Scott’s “Naked City.” The big-band tracks alone (such as Gil Fuller’s “The Scene Changes”) will prompt another post in the next week or so on the state of all things swing in the late 1940s.
The accompanying booklet (roughly one-fourth of the book That Devilin’ Tune) again demonstrates Lowe’s gift for the snapshot summary of a musician’s distinctive sound (he writes of Dexter Gordon’s “supreme, stoned relaxation in in the face of bebop’s broiling rhythm sections”) and the apparently seamless narration of many different artists and styles. At the end he states, “Everyone has their own uses for history and mine, if more inclusive than the average, are no more objective nor less combative. My hope in writing the aforegoing story is only that the occasional name will catch the occasional eye of the occasional reader, and deliver one more musician, dead or alive, from the humiliations of obscurity.” Amen.