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Just What Is Classic Blues, Anyway?

The Birth of Jazz

Cover Maple Leaf Rag
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
America at the dawn of the 20th century. The repercussions of the Civil War were starting to wear off and railroad lines were being built that crisscrossed the vast expanse of the country, connecting people and a fledgling industry. The country was transforming, reinventing itself. And so did its music. Black songwriters and performers whose voices were mostly silenced during the years of slavery were making their presence felt. In the Midwest, a young, aspiring pianist by the name of Scott Joplin (1867-1917) was pounding the syncopated strains of Ragtime into the rolls of reproducing pianolas. In New Orleans, a barber and cornetist by the name of Buddy Bolden (1877-1931) put together the first dance band that broke with the French tradition of marches, mazurkas, and quadrilles and went for a wailing horn section sound instead that echoed the old work songs and spirituals, relentlessly driven by a «Big Four» drumbeat. And a newborn baby had just been named Louis Armstrong (1901-1971).

Portrait Ma Rainey
Ma Rainey – Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The new music didn't take long to take over the continent. Piano rolls were distributed far and wide, steamboats carried the New Orleans sound up the Mississippi into the industrial Midwest, and vaudeville road shows offering a variety of acts traveled the rural South. However, the new sound was still mostly instrumental: since no working P.A. system had been invented yet, singers struggled to compete with the blast of horn sections and the new jazz bands limited their vocal ambitions largely to «shout choruses». An ambitious young vocalist on the tent show circuit, Gertrude «Ma» Rainey (1886-1939), developed a solution to the problem: instead of a marching band rhythm section she had just a piano or guitar supply a beat and harmony, and one or two horn players were filling up the space between vocal lines in a call-and-response manner, reducing the physical burden on the singer.

Portrait Gladys Bentley
Gladys Bentley – Foto: Wikimedia Commons
But most of all, instead of reproducing musical comedy hit numbers, Rainey and the artists following in her footsteps – mostly women – often penned their own lyrics. And these words were a direct reflection of their lives as tough, self-reliant women navigating a world of often chaotic relationships, emotional disappointment and material hardship. In other words: something their audiences could immediately relate to. No wonder Rainey and her acolytes became instant successes.

Classic Blues was born on the theater stage, and it has always been theatrical, putting great demand on the singer to act out the tune's lyrics. So it isn't surprising that very few of its singers doubled as instrumentalists, with the notable exception of pianist Gladys Bentley (1907-1960) and guitarist Lizzie «Memphis Minnie» Douglas (1897-1973).

Along came the Phonograph

Portrait Mamie Smith
Mamie Smith – Foto: Wikimedia Commons
Record companies, who back then were new to the market themselves, initially were apprehensive of the new sound. But musicians were also skeptical. New Orleans trumpet star Freddie Keppard (1890-1933) turned down an opportunity to record for fear imitators would steal his trademark tone. It was an historical irony that the first jazz record ever published in 1917 was by a white New Orleans group, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. That same year, a string of other jazz recordings by both black and white bands appeared, among them an orchestra led by notable trumpeter William C. Handy (1873-1958), who took the new sound to New York City. When in August of 1920, white singer Sophie Tucker failed to make it to a studio appointment, it was him along with fellow NYC songwriter Perry Bradford (1893-1970) who talked Okeh Records into recording one of the new type of black vocalists in the Ma Rainey mold instead. Her name was Mamie Smith (1883-1946), and her «Crazy Blues», written by Bradford, became an instant hit. Sales were highest in the black neighborhoods of the industrial towns of the North and Midwest. Unintentionally, the recording industry had stumbled upon a whole new record-buying public.

Portrait Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith –
Foto: Carl van Vechten, Wikimedia Commons
In time, more and more Classic Blues vocalists made their recording début. In 1921, Alberta Hunter (1895-1984) recorded her first sides, and finally in 1923, alongside Ma Rainey's first recordings, the woman who epitomized the Classic Blues sound more than any other, «Empress of the Blues» Bessie Smith (1894-1937), had her first hit record with «Down-Hearted Blues», written by colleague Alberta Hunter. All in all, 252 singers, most of them women, published some 3,200 Classic Blues songs until the great stock market crash of 1929 put a sudden end to music recording.

1933: Changing Times

When Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal put an end to the Great Depression in 1933, music tastes had drastically changed. The public demanded a more lively, optimistic tone and lusher orchestration, and big band swing satisfied this demand to a T. Plus, the P.A. system, originally invented for movie theaters with the advent of «talkies» or sound film, brought forth a new type of jazz singer. Billie Holiday (1915-1959), who made her first recordings in a NYC studio on a Monday in November 1933 where just the Friday before Bessie Smith had cut what would be her last, was the first singer who fully grasped the power of the microphone and the elegant, soft phrasing it enabled.

Portrait Ethel Waters
Ethel Waters –
Foto: William P. Gottlieb, Wikimedia Commons
Some of the Classic Blues singers, like Ethel Waters (1896-1977) or Ida Cox (1896-1967), were able to adapt. Bessie Smith probably would have, too, had her career not been cut short by a fatal car accident in 1937. Alberta Hunter continued her career in Europe until World War II forced her to remigrate to the US. But most of the Classic Blues singers retired from the touring business in order to pursue other jobs.

When rock'n'roll rekindled an interest in the blues in the 1960s, many Classic Blues performers enjoyed a second career late in life. Victoria Spivey (1906-1976), who, like Sippie Wallace (1898-1986), had weathered the lean years as a church organist, founded her own record label in 1962, dedicated to recording the sounds of her contemporaries. But the greatest comeback was probably that of Alberta Hunter who had become a nurse after quitting her music career. Starting in 1977, she issued a steady stream of influential albums lasting almost up to her passing in 1984.

Meanwhile, a younger generation of blueswomen had taken over the Classic Blues tradition. Most notably Gaye Adegbalola (b. 1944) and Ann Rabson (1945-2013), who co-fronted the group «Saffire» for decades, have carried on the torch. It is our hope and ambition to be worthy third-generation heirs to the Classic Blues tradition.

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