Feb 17, 2015

Review: "Creating Jazz Counterpoint: New Orleans, Barbershop Harmony, and the Blues," by Vic Hobson

It must have been tough to come up with a title - in just 129 pages (with 43 musical examples), this book covers a lot of ground.

The short version of the title, Creating Jazz Counterpoint, refers to one of the central questions considered in the book: How did the polyphonic instrumental texture of early New Orleans jazz develop? The full title, Creating Jazz Counterpoint: New Orleans, Barbershop Harmony, and the Blues, provides more specific reference to the subject matter, but still does not adequately convey the wide range of historical, biographical, and musicological material that is presented.

This book is the result of Vic Hobson's extensive research into early jazz and blues, using source material that included 1930s-1940s interviews (published and unpublished) with musicians of the early 1900s, the archived music of the John Robichaux band (active in New Orleans from 1877 to the 1940s), published sheet music, and public records. While endeavoring to answer some questions about the early development of jazz and blues, Hobson provides us a fascinating view of the New Orleans music scene in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"Creating Jazz Counterpoint" is divided into nine chapters; each chapter is a sort of separate essay. Hobson's writing is quite readable, although the information is dense. Here is my attempt at a synopsis of each chapter, necessarily missing a lot of the detail:

Chapter 1: Jazzmen - Discusses Frederick Ramsey's 1939 book Jazzmen, which presented trumpeter Bunk Johnson as a living link to the legendary jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden. Bolden had left no surviving recordings. Bunk claimed he had played in Bolden's band, and Ramsey believed that Bunk's style very likely was similar to Bolden's. Critics have long questioned Bunk's reliability. Using Ramsey's notes and other sources, Hobson concludes that Bunk's information about history and about Bolden's playing style was basically reliable. In this chapter Hobson also proposes the idea that New Orleans counterpoint derived from barbershop quartet practices, and jazz/blues harmony from the intersection of barbershop harmony with blues tonality.

Chapter 2: The Bolden Legend - Considers available information on Buddy Bolden, including interviews and period documents, to assemble a likely Bolden chronology. Examines the tune, "Buddy Bolden's Blues," recorded by Jelly Roll Morton in 1939. This tune (aka "Funky Butt") is essentially the same as "St. Louis Tickle" (1904), both apparently deriving from "Cakewalk in the Sky" (1899). Morton recalled hearing the tune in 1902. As Morton played it in 1939, this tune included the progression Idom to IV to #IVdim, which has both barbershop and blues elements. However, it is an open question whether Morton's 1939 recording accurately represents the harmony as it was played circa 1902.

Chapter 3: Just Bunk? - Further investigates whether Bunk Johnson was a reliable source of information about Bolden's style, concluding that while the dates supplied by Bunk were several years too early, his information regarding Bolden's style is probably accurate. Bunk was most likely born in 1884, and appears to have played with Bolden beginning in 1902 or later.

Chapter 4: Cracking Up a Chord - In the late 19th century, barbershop singing was a popular pastime in the African American community. Characteristic barbershop harmony included frequent use of secondary dominant chords, and diminished chords containing the tonic note. Melodically, blue notes were in use in popular music, and barbershop harmony worked well to harmonize minor-third/major-third blue notes. Hobson cites much evidence that barbershop singing was quite popular in New Orleans, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Chapter 5: Bill Russell's American Music - Russell was co-author of the "New Orleans Music" section of Ramsey's "Jazzmen." Russell believed, with good reason, Bunk's assertion that he had played with Bolden, and encouraged Bunk to record. Hobson points out Bunk's use of the tonic diminished chord, a barbershop device. Both Bunk and Louis Armstrong excelled at the "second cornet" role in a typical New Orleans ensemble (second cornet played/improvised a counterline to the melody). Examining several tunes that were said to be in Bolden's repertoire ("Careless Love," "Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor," Mamie's Blues"), as played by Bunk Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, and other early New Orleans players, Hobson points out the use of both barbershop harmony, and blues tonality.

Chapter 6: The "Creoles of Color" - Examines the role of sheet music in spreading the popularity of blues and pre-blues tunes (Hobson's research draws on the Robichaux collection, an archive of the repertoire of one of New Orleans' leading bands, active from 1877 to the 1940s). Songs considered include "I Got the Blues" (1908), "Just Because She Made Them Goo-Goo Eyes" (1900 - uses a 12-bar blues progression), and W. C. Handy's "Memphis Blues" (1912), "Jogo Blues" (1913), and "St. Louis Blues" (1914). Handy claimed inspiration from an 1892 experience hearing folk blues; Handy also knew barbershop harmony. This chapter also includes an account of the musical life of clarinetist Alphonse Picou; regarding Picou's version of "High Society," Hobson says, "The sheet music as performed by John Robichaux shows the clear imprint of barbershop harmony."

Chapter 7: The Original Dixieland Jazz Band - Considers recordings by the ODJB made in 1917 (the first recording of a jazz band), pointing out barbershop harmony elements. Quotes Nick LaRocca (cornetist/leader) as saying that his use of countermelodies was inspired partly by his boyhood experience listening to counterlines in French opera, as well as his early experience with vocal harmonizing.

Chapter 8: New Orleans: Capital of Jazz - Further considers dates for Buddy Bolden, citing reminiscences of Bolden's fellow musicians. Concludes that Bolden did not lead his own band until about 1900. Describes the changing role of instruments in a typical New Orleans band in the early 20th century, with violin being replaced by cornet (sometimes clarinet) as a lead instrument. Bolden may have played a "second" part on cornet. Playing harmony using secondary dominant concepts would have introduced notes that, played separately, would have come across as blue notes. Touches on the development of the "jazz soloist," driven largely by Louis Armstrong in the 1920s (Armstrong had played second cornet with King Oliver's band).

Chapter 9: The Blues and New Orleans Jazz - This short chapter sums up "How the blues became a part of the repertoire and tonality of jazz." Quoting Hobson,
Barbershop cadences give rise to specific harmonic progressions and particular voice leadings that are associated with the blues. It was through the application of these cadences and voice leadings to their instruments that the musicians of New Orleans developed New Orleans-style jazz.
Hobson makes a convincing case. Of course, secondary dominants were present in all sorts of music available in 19th-century New Orleans - classical, Sousa marches, instructional etudes, and I'd imagine hymns also (I'm no expert) - not just barbershop. But I'm willing to believe that in the social circles where jazz and blues developed, barbershop could have been a primary influence in establishing the use of dominant I and IV chords, which accommodate blue notes in a blues progression.

If you are interested in current scholarship about early jazz, and some interesting, well-researched biographies of early jazz figures, you should check out Creating Jazz Counterpoint: New Orleans, Barbershop Harmony, and the Blues. Highly recommended!

Strictly by coincidence, today is Mardi Gras, and it only seems right that I post this while there are still a few hours left in Fat Tuesday. Here's Jelly Roll Morton to wind it up:

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