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17 October 2014

Sing Sing Sing; Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Harry James, and Jimi Hendrix

A lot of us are handicapped in our understanding of jazz and popular music because we actually remember some of the key figures when they were old. I certainly remember seeing Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and other greats in their later years; of course, they were still great musicians, but they were almost establishment figures. When I think of Count Basie, I think of him as rather portly, with a grey mustache, the way he looked in the 60s and 70s. When I think of Bobby Hackett, I think of him as a rather wizened grey haired man in a checked jacket. But this is wrong; these people were young turks, innovators, and iconoclasts in their early days. No one had ever heard anything like them.

Perhaps people my age can understand the impact of 20th century jazz innovators by remembering our generation's virtuosi; guitar was our instrument, and we can all name superstar guitarists who changed popular music forever. Jimi Hendrix was the most mind-blowing, combining inspiration with technique in a way that just couldn't be copied -- like Louis Armstrong said about Bix Beiderbecke, "Everybody wanted to play like him, but ain't nobody played like him yet."

In the very earliest years of his fame, when he was about 21 years old, Harry James was a similar powerhouse, tireless, committed, possessing incomparable technique and great taste. Remembering him when he was older makes it hard to realize what a sensation he was. Goodman snapped him up, and his capabilities strongly influenced the direction of what was then the number one orchestra.

One of the cool things about the little snippets of newsreel footage of the Benny Goodman Orchestra's 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert (available on YouTube) that have come to light is seeing, first, how small the orchestra is! -- and second, the dynamic layout of the musicians. This was the supreme trumpet section in the world, probably (for a few brief, shining moments, anyway), consisting of three very young guys -- Ziggy Ellman, Chris Griffin, and, of course, Harry James. James was 22, Griffin 23, and Elman 24 -- what would be garage-band age today! For this event they are somewhat crowded to allow for extra seating, and the three trumpets are nestled right up next to Gene Krupa's drums. And throughout these very high quality arrangements, with some of the best solos ever, that power trio lock in the rhythm with Krupa. Especially with Sing, Sing, Sing.

I understand there are actually some people who don't care for this performance. I can't imagine life without it, as I probably started hearing it before I was born -- my father was a huge Goodman fan and had spent a hard-earned 85 cents to be there that night.  I'm sure he got the first album to come out in 1950. I find it a work of art for the ages, with something new emerging almost every time I listen to it, from the fabulous solos especially -- Harry, Benny, Jess Stacy -- and Krupa is more a Rhythm God than :a mere Rhythm King. The way the different sections of the orchestra switch off between rhythm and melody, drop back to support a solo, join together to drive the progress of the melody, separate to draw attention first to one sound, then another -- it's spellbinding. 

It's also worthwhile remembering that these performers didn't know they were being recorded; they weren't putting out extra effort for posterity. Their playing was always like that!

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