Poor old old-school jazz. A lot of people just don’t really get it. They turn up in their trilbies and braces, and have some good, harmless fun. I think there’s a perception that anything from 80 or so years ago is ‘harmless’ – maybe it has to do with the memories of our grandparents – wrinkly, loveable, and ineffectual. Their lives must have been *so* amazingly quaint and romantic at the time. So vintage! But we don’t really care, of course not. We just use the good bits as decoration; petty cultural thievery across time. Chattanooga Choo-Choo on an art-deco gramophone from Amazon, going round and round.
Jazz in the first half of the 20th century was made by people with backstories that are totally unrealistic; the type of backstory you just don’t get this side of 1950. Gypsy Jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt was an illiterate eighteen year old, well, gypsy, scratching a living as a musician in Belgium. One night, he knocked over a candle on his way to bed, setting his caravan on fire. he was pulled to safety by his neighbours, but suffered severe burns. His right leg was paralysed, and doctors told him that his hand was so badly damaged that he would never play guitar again. Within a year he was able to walk with a cane, and he invented a completely new way of playing guitar, using only his index and middle fingers for solo work.
Legendary stride pianist and composer Fats Waller was the son of a clergyman. At the time, working as a jazz musician meant hanging out in some very dubious places, and Fats’ father vehemently opposed his son’s choice of occupation, to no avail. The pianist became a national success; getting attention for his theatrical stage persona and incredible eyebrows as much as his playing. However, he was moving in ever seedier circles: in 1926 he was kidnapped after a show in Chicago, and taken to Al Pacino’s mansion, the Hawthorne Inn, where he was ordered to play the piano at gunpoint. It’s rumoured that he left the Hawthorne Inn 3 days later, extremely drunk and with bags of cash.
The Queen Of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, had an insanely rough time in her youth. Her mum died of a heart attack when she was 15, and her grades at school (previously straight As) began to slip soon after. Soon she was skipping school, and working as a lookout at a brothel and for the mafia. Ella never talked publicly about this period of her life, so details are sparse, but it appears that at some point she was arrested and placed in a (horribly named) Coloured Orphan Asylum. However, when the asylum proved too crowded (!) she was sent to a juvenile reformatory near New York City. She was then homeless for a while, making her living singing on the street. Her luck changed when she won a talent competition – she was intending to go onstage and dance but changed her mind at the last minute, singing ‘The Object Of My Affection’. After winning another competition she was introduced to drummer Chick Webb and began to sing guest vocals in his jazz orchestra, and things started looking up after an unimaginably nasty few years.
The bit that I’m trying to get to is that I think there’s a perception that music from this era is light, novelty entertainment, but it’s not. It’s not supposed to be. A lot of it is really fun and hugely enjoyable, but it has real depth and soul to it as well. When Ella sings Basin Street Blues, she’s laughing in the face of adversity. When Fats Waller sings Ain’t Misbehavin’, it’s charged with sex, danger, and of course, irony. There’s nothing superficial about this music, or the lives of the people that made it. I think it’s amazing that these people went through all this stuff, and we should enjoy their music, not because it’s ‘vintage’, but because it’s really fucking good.
Words and playlist by Peter Beardsworth