Tag Archives: cello

simple music worth noting

4 Mar

I found myself this evening dodging Chicago traffic on the way home and listening to an Eddie South recording from the late 1920s of By The Shores Of Lake Minnetonka, a popular tune from the era with Native American derivation. Chicago-based bandleader and violinist Eddie South was a child prodigy of classical violin who switched to performing jazz and popular music in the 1920s when racism foreclosed career options for him either with a major orchestra or on the solo circuit. South became arguably the strongest jazz violinist who has ever lived. In an era when it was not uncommon for violinists to front dance bands, South’s technique sparkles, outshining early jazz age violin contemporaries George Morrison, Erskine Tate, and Carroll Dickerson, and even second generation luminaries Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli.

While driving and listening, I was struck with the elegance of Eddie South’s performance on the recording. While South adorns the tune gracefully, the underlying musical idea is very simple.

It is a wonderful thing when a performer is able to reduce all possible complexity to its simple essence.

And not just great musicians, but all great artists, great thinkers, and great athletes possess this ability. They are able to take a wealth of experience and distill from it something very basic.

It is important it is to pay close attention to the seemingly simple, especially when offered by those with great experience.

A second example that came to mind as I was driving was composer JS Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, which contemporary jazz musician Jon Batiste recently pointed out in an interview were written for children. While hardly easy to play, they present a musical idea known as counterpoint in its most basic form. The big idea of counterpoint is that a single piece of music can be composed of two simultaneous voices that are mutually interdependent, without one being subordinate to the other. Simple — like a good human relationship.

Another image that flashed to mind was Einstein at the chalkboard, indicating his little formula E=MC2

In music, the simple ideas are often worth noting.

The ups and downs of jazz violin

26 Nov

There is a long history to the jazz violin. Chris Haigh’s website does a great job of documenting this lineage. Moreover, there are excellent contemporary jazz violinists. More interesting than thinking about this history in terms of a continuing linear evolution is considering the breaks and ruptures, and the roads not taken. On this latter note, there was a noticeable shift after the 1920s in which it seems that the (sometimes prominently featured) string quartets and (frequently prominently featured) violinists of hot jazz bands all but disappeared. By the time of big bands and the swing era in the 1930s, strings were no longer commonplace in popular jazz.

I think there were perhaps multiple factors that played into this transformation, and there are no simple reasons for the change. For example, a pat explanation is that big bands were simply too loud for violins and cellos. While at first glance this makes sense, it overlooks the important story of Eddie Lang, often credited with being the first jazz electric guitarist. The story with Lang is that he experimented in the early 20s with some of the first valve-based amplifiers made by RCA, using pickups made from hacked phonograph cartridges and telephone receivers. Already as early as 1917, the Russian scientist and cellist Lev Theremin had designed an electric cello, built by the early 20s, and presumably jazz string players experimented with methods of amplification just like guitarists.

Here are some related pictures:

The violin has a long history in American folk music.

Buskers in the early 1930s

New Orleans band from early teens featuring acoustic guitar, violin, bass.

Jazz band from early 20s, violin left and rear

Early Creole jazz band from Ken Burns’ PBS jazz series

Proto Jazz

21 Nov

Library of Congress has a nice article on Ragtime that raises the fascinating topic of of polyrhythm as both African inspired but also found in the jigs and reels played by immigrants from the British Isles in the Appalachian regions of the US South. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200035811

The wiki entry on Contradanze/Habanera is also a very interesting read, on the Afro-Cuban origins of proto-jazz styles. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contradanza

Another interesting musical form of proto jazz is the “Cakewalk”. Need to read more about this!

Frederick Douglass…violinist?

10 Nov

According to the National Park Service at the Washington DC Frederick Douglass Historical Site:

Douglass played the violin for his grandchildren and guests when they visited Cedar Hill. He frequently performed for his grandchildren after supper and before their bedtime….Douglass would appear in the door leading from the hall or West Parlor into the dining room with his violin in hand. He taught his grandchildren slave songs he learned as a young slave. The grandchildren sang and clapped their hands while Douglass tapped his feet….

https://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/douglass/exb/homeinWashington/FRDO2505_violin.html

In the words of Dr. Douglass himself:

“I sometimes (at long intervals) try my old violin; but after all, the music of the past and of imagination is sweeter than any my unpracticed and unskilled bow can produce. So I lay my dear, old fiddle aside, and listen to the soft, silent, distant music of other days, which, in the hush of my spirit, I still find lingering somewhere in the mysterious depths of my soul.”


Holland, Frederic May. Frederick Douglass: The Colored Orator (1895 edition), p. 335.

Frederick Douglass listens to his grandson Joseph Douglass, also a violinist:

(Library of Congress)

Black And Tan Fantasy for Cello Quartet

31 Oct

Here’s an arrangement for four cellos I did of the Duke Ellington / Bubber Miley composition Black And Tan Fantasy. I tried to faithfully transcribe all of the solos as played on the original 1927 first take, for Okeh Records. I think this tune is amazing because of the way it combines elements of classical, blues, and jazz.

Before Django/Grappelli there was Lang/Venuti

30 Jul

Somehow the French gypsy jazz guitar/violin duo of the thirties and forties has eclipsed its Italian-American forebear which dominated the jazz age in the twenties. Django and Grappelli were standing on the shoulders of giants, it turns out. Where Grappelli plays like fancy stitching around the top edge of the rhythmic pocket, Joe Venuti is deep inside it, driving forward with confidently virtuosic technique.

Django was obviously a remarkable musician, but Eddie Lang is the “father of jazz guitar”. These two blues guitar duets with Lonnie Johnson (incidentally Johnson was a Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist and signer, and is credited with being the first to play an electric violin) seem to be at the same time textbook examples of the blues and also feature some exploratory reharmonizations that point towards things to come.

One more: “Blue Blues” by the Mound City (St. Louis) Blue Blowers, recorded in 1924. It features Eddie Lang on guitar and kazoo and comb (played with tissue paper). So good!

Sakura at Japanese American National Museum exhibit

2 Jun

My 5th grade cello student asked me to play an open mic at an exhibit on the Japanese American Internment presented collaboratively by Chicago JACL, the Midwest Buddhist Temple, and JANM, the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. So I made this arrangement of Sakura, or “Cherry Blossoms” for him. Here’s a youtube recording of the arrangement. The score and parts can be downloaded here, along with Japanese, English and Romaji versions of the lyrics.

The Okeh Ellington

27 Apr

After my brother Jamie’s recommendation to seriously consider Duke Ellington as a resource for tunes that would work well in arrangement for a bowed string jazz combo, I looked up some reviews to see where to begin. I remember listening to some late, piano-heavy Ellington (or perhaps covers of Ellington?) years back and not being so impressed, so there’s been a little anxiety around the idea of returning for a close listen.

Picking up courage I found a good reddit.com thread with some recommendations.

I decided to start at the beginning with the 50-tune collection The Okeh Ellington, from his early period 1927-1930.

This well-written review by Kevin Gallaugher clinched it:

I empathize with the audiophiles’ comments here regarding sound quality of this recording, but at some point we must move on. Let’s concentrate on the music itself, groundbreaking art of the highest degree. These recordings come from perhaps Ellington’s most fascinating period, that two to three year window when his orchestra was not yet the world renowned, household name it would soon become, but was actually in the process of creating the body of work which would ultimately render that condition inevitable. During this period, the orchestra members seem fully cognizant that their band is the finest in the land. The recordings on display here palpably reflect that attitude. The blues was perhaps a more predominant element to the Orchestra’s sound than it would ever be thereafter. Critically, Bubber Miley is present, and in incandescent form. Miley was one of the most swinging, creative, emotionally expressive blues musicians who ever lived, and the growling, muted plunger style of interplay between Miley’s trumpet and Tricky Sam Nanton’s trombone exhibited here would never again grace a recording studio once this period had passed. These two geniuses have influenced jazz musicians far and wide up to this day, whether or not they even realize who it is they copy…

https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/RA2WF0HNPGVYK/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B00000274L

Jamie, and K. Gallaugher, are absolutely right. The Ellington tunes are incredible. To my ear anyway, this is the pinnacle of what I’ve heard done with the blues. Check out Black and Tan Fantasy below.

Fun fact about Ellington: he was born in 1899.

One surprising thing to me is how similar the rhythm section in many of the Ellington recordings sounds to what Django and the Quintette du Hot Club de France would be doing in Paris with guitars a couple years later in the early thirties.

Compare Jubilee Stomp (Ellington) and Swing Guitars (Django).


Fourth Grade Fabulous

26 Mar

I wrote this tune many years ago for fourth grade beginning string orchestra, and recently revised it a little bit, incorporating changes that are helpful to first year string players. Here’s a pdf download for anyone with a beginning string orchestra or chamber group looking for some accessible rep. It features scalar, unison melodies, and a simple harmonic progression. The parts are grouped into two: upper strings (violin & viola) and lower strings (cello & bass). There’s some call and response to encourage listening across the ensemble. String crossings occur over open strings, and fingerings are included in helpful places. There are no slurs. This tune is correlated with the end of the Essential Elements Vol. 1 series.

https://payhip.com/b/nhlI


Greatest all-time two minutes of pop writing and orchestration?

20 Feb

The greatest two minutes of pop writing and orchestration has to be Leonard Bernstein’s tribute to Beethoven, “Somewhere”, from his 1961 orchestral suite West Side Story.  The counterpoint between the leaping and returning themes is exquisite.  The delicate harp raindrops accompanying.  Video starts at 4:30.  The orchestra is extremely close-mic’d, and it sounds great!