Perfect Blues Perfect Blues
Perfect Blues

Track Listing

Count Basie / Jimmy Rushing: Good Morning Blues
Billie Holiday: Fine And Mellow
Jelly Roll Morton: Original Jelly Roll Blues
Joe Venuti / Eddie Lang: Beale Street Blues
Bessie Smith: Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out
Louis Armstrong & His Hot Seven: Potato Head Blues
Leadbelly: Backwater Blues
Kay Starr: Stormy Weather
Fats Waller: Fats Waller's Original E-Flat Blues
Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra: Blues In The Night
Maxine Sullivan: St. Louis Blues
Benny Carter & His Orchestra: Swingin' The Blues
Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra: (What Did I Do To Be So) Black And Blue?
Bessie Smith: I'm Down In The Dumps
Joe Venuti's Blue Four: To To Blues
Nat Gonella & His Georgians: Hesitation Blues
Johnny Dodds & His Orchestra: Red Onion Blues
Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five: Early In The Morning
Billie Holiday: I Love My Man (Billie's Blues)
Woody Herman & His Orchestra: Blues On Parade
Sarah Vaughan: Lover Man
Count Basie / Jimmy Rushing: Harvard Blues


What is it about the blues? How can one explain the potency of this apparently simple musical form? A key factor in jazz, the blues gene also zigzags through rock and soul, and is a significant influence on country ‘n’ western and reggae, too. Certainly, jazz musicians have no doubt of the continuing efficacy of the blues form, with successive generations of jazzmen obtaining creative sustenance from the time-honoured 12-bar structure. They love the tone qualities and timbre peculiar to blues expression.

One who makes ample use of the blues in his new compositions is prominent trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who often reminds us that Duke Ellington, too, was a man who never lost his affinity for the blues. As if to illustrate this, there’s a story credited to the late Basie band vocalist Joe Williams. “If ever Duke came into a club,” he said, “you just waited ‘til he stood up to go, put his coat on and got to the door, and then you started to sing a blues. Duke would just turn around and he’d be back at his table straight away.”

On the principle that whatever was good enough for the Duke must be worth your closest attention, we have assembled a series of ‘perfect’ blues performances which encompass the traditionalism of a songster like Huddie Ledbetter (who called himself Leadbelly) and the sophistication of bebop songstress Sarah Vaughan plus plenty in between. For some, “a poetic remembrance of things past” (in the words of Studs Terkel), for others, blues reflects tougher, grittier realities. As the jazz critic Whitney Balliett once wrote about blues: “They can be sad, miserable, low-down sad. They can be angry-sad. They can be haunting. They can be lilting, salubrious, joyous, bubbling. They can be wildly exuberant. They can be funny, sardonic and even nasty. They can be ironic. They can be dirty...” In fact, to echo the masthead of an old Sunday newspaper, ‘All human life is there.’

We start (and close) with the rotund figure of Jimmy Rushing, the singer forever known as ‘Mr. Five by Five’ for the very good reason that he was just about as wide as he was tall. Here he appears with the Count Basie Orchestra, with whom he did his best work in the Thirties and Forties. According to Lester Young, the band’s celebrated tenor-saxophonist, “Rush had fire when he sang the blues.” Maybe so, but Rushing knew how to be plaintive, especially so on Good Morning Blues when he yearns for the return of his lost love in time for Christmas. Basie’s piano seems simple but every note is tellingly placed. Buck Clayton’s muted trumpet maintains the sober mood.

Musicologist Gunther Schuller referred to George Frazier’s lyrics for Harvard Blues, our last selection, as “probably the most sophisticated and cryptic ever contrived,” and that seems about right. The identity of Reinhardt remains a mystery to this day! The atmosphere here is hushed and secret, as Rushing weighs up every word, with the wailing trombone obbligato by Dickie Wells a true second voice. The velvety tenor saxophone is by Don Byas (Young’s replacement) and bandmate Tab Smith contributed the masterly arrangement.

Billie Holiday made her reputation an interpreter of popular songs, often transforming trite novelties into artistic showpieces. She recorded few out-and-out blues, although she returned often to Fine And Mellow, her own composition. The eerie opening saxophone figure is answered by Holiday’s diamond-hard yet poignant sound. Holiday knew plenty about mean men in real life, linking up with a series of exploitative partners, some of whom physically abused her. No wonder she wrote this blues! Frankie Newton’s muted trumpet adds the embellishments. Holiday recorded her own Billie’s Blues at the first-ever session under her own name back in 1936; by the time she came to re-record it for Commodore, on the day after her 29th birthday, Billie was a star, an Esquire award-winner and a top attraction on New York’s 52nd Street. Sadly, she was also addicted to heroin and set on a downward path.

Whether the New Orleans pianist Ferdinand ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton experimented with hard drugs is uncertain, but he was at home with low life people, having started out as a performer in the Crescent City’s ‘sporting houses.’ He was also a musical organiser of consummate skill, a soloist of distinction, and probably the first jazzman to compose and structure the hitherto freely improvised music we now call jazz. Original Jelly Roll Blues is a masterpiece, solo passages balanced by cleverly planned stop time rhythms, the product of extensive rehearsal and a relaxed atmosphere.

Beale Street was the main thoroughfare in the black section of Memphis and it seems doubtful whether the sophisticated white New Yorkers who make up the majority of the Venuti-Lang All-Stars would have known whether it was ‘paved with gold’ or not. Trombone man Jack Teagarden , who takes the vocal, may have been the exception. A Texan, he grew up next to a black ‘holy roller’ church and knew all about the blues. This stompy performance of W.C. Handy’s famous composition, spots Venuti’s violin and Lang’s guitar. It’s Benny Goodman on clarinet and Jack’s brother, Charlie who heads up the ensembles. To To Blues, recorded a month earlier by a smaller group, again teams Venuti with Lang, fellow Italian-Americans and long-term associates, supported by the sprightly clarinet of Jimmy Dorsey, later a successful swing bandleader. It’s also his surprisingly stodgy baritone sax we hear at first. Venuti was a prankster in real life but never lacked ability, or confidence, for that matter.

Bessie Smith was known as the ‘Empress of the Blues’ and was easily the most gifted of the blues ladies who recorded following the success of Mamie Smith’s 1920 waxing of ‘Crazy Blues.’ Imperious yet drenched in sadness, Bessie’s sublime vocal artistry made her the highest-paid black artist in the world. Hard-living and wild, she died in 1937 after having an arm severed in a Mississippi car crash. Bessie’s impassioned commitment to her lyrics is immediately evident on Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out, sensitively enhanced by Ed Allen’s fluent cornet. Down In The Dumps finds her four years on, with a mixed group, on her final session. This is a narrative blues, the story, as ever, an illustration of the fickle nature of love. Less than four years later, Bessie was dead at 42.

If Bessie Smith was the greatest female blues singer of all time, then how should we describe Louis Armstrong whose Potato Head Blues from May 1927 follows next? Summoned to Chicago from New Orleans in 1922, the young trumpeter caused a sensation, his virtuosity and unfettered creativity transforming a primitive folk art into a music of exceptional complexity and sophistication. Louis’s chorus over stop-time chords with “its throbbing poignancy” (Schuller’s words) and “blistering energy” (Humphrey Lyttelton) is one of the masterworks of jazz. Majestic, inspired, and technically daring, it appeared to set a completely new agenda for jazz improvisation. A mere two years later, when Louis came to record Black And Blue with a larger orchestra, he was the star of ‘Hot Chocolates,’ a Broadway show which highlighted his vocal and instrumental artistry. Fats Waller’s affecting theme, with its allusions to racial segregation, proved an enduring success for Louis.

Huddie Ledbetter was discovered by John Lomax, a folklorist interested in documenting black country music, at the Angola State penitentiary in Louisiana where Ledbetter was serving a term for murder. After his release, Ledbetter began to work for Lomax and was taken up by the white liberal establishment in New York. His loping 12-string guitar style, rhythmically agile, and tough vocal style come through well on this old Bessie Smith number. White skifflers like Lonnie Donegan were greatly inspired by Ledbetter.

Strictly speaking, Stormy Weather isn’t a blues but a 32-bar popular song composed by Harold Arlen for the eponymous all-black film. Made famous by Lena Horne, it’s Kay Starr’s version that we feature here, the singer supported by a fine swing combo. The soothing alto is by Benny Carter and on piano it’s Nat King Cole, who, like Starr, went on to achieve fame and fortune as a popular singing star. Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller, the ‘harmful little armful’ as he was known, only did harm to himself, consuming massive quantities of alcohol before succumbing to a heart attack in 1943 when only 39. The son of a Harlem pastor, Fats crammed much into his short life, as pianist, bandleader, composer and film actor, his many talents overlaid with a penchant for throwaway humour which brought him country-wide popularity. For Fats, jazz was always fun. Even on a stately piece like his Original E-Flat Blues, he cannot resist a few playful comments. Al Casey’s single-string guitar, Bugs Hamilton’s growl trumpet and Gene Sedric’s evocative clarinet are noteworthy here.

Big band blues don’t come much better than Blues In The Night, another Harold Arlen speciality composed for a film, played here by Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra, one of the top bands of the day. Willie Smith’s plangent alto states the theme, the mood sombre and contained, with growl trumpet by Paul Webster, before the arrangement changes direction. Maxine Sullivan had a hit record with a jazz version of ‘Loch Lomond’, audiences responding to her understated yet wonderfully relaxed vocal style. Here she sings St. Louis Blues, the best known of W.C. Handy’s blues pieces, aided by pianist Claude Thornhill and his men. Bobby Hackett’s lissome cornet and Babe Russin’s bustling tenor are featured.

Benny Carter is probably the nearest thing in jazz to the original ‘renaissance man.’ A major stylist on alto saxophone, he was proficient on clarinet and trumpet, a composer and arranger of distinction, and a bandleader whose orchestras were often seen as academies of excellence. Swingin’ The Blues was made while Carter was in London, working as staff writer for Henry Hall’s dance band, and features the composer himself on alto and trumpet. Trixie Smith’s polished blues style betrayed her origins in black vaudeville and Freight Train Blues by Tom Dorsey, who later became a prominent composer of gospel music, was one of her most successful recordings. It’s the searing clarinet of Sidney Bechet which sets (and maintains) the mood with the 20-year old Charlie Shavers keeping up well on trumpet.

Nat Gonella was Britain’s Louis Armstrong, a hot trumpet man who fell for Louis’s style when the great man first came to England in 1932 and stayed faithful to it throughout a long career. He named his small swing band the Georgians to commemorate his success with Georgia On My Mind, the Hoagy Carmichael song. Nat’s blues were seldom melancholy and Hesitation Blues is taken at quite a clip. His vocals, with their East End vowels, may be less than authentic but his trumpet attack was just the job, peppy and dynamic. The wheezy tenor is by Pat Smuts.

Red Onion Blues, by the New Orleans pianist Clarence Williams, was named for a low-down dive and highlights the work of the important clarinetist Johnny Dodds - heard on Armstrong’s Potato Head Blues - at his final recording session. Surrounded by associates from New Orleans (including his brother Baby Dodds, on drums), Johnny, already grievously ill, produced some of the most intense and heartfelt blues playing on record. Two months after the session, Dodds was dead aged only 48. In complete contrast, the ever-animated Louis Jordan kept a wry eye on the blues in his live shows and on record. Early In The Morning has a Caribbean cast and stars vocalist Jordan in his familiar role as downtrodden male. There’s just enough of Jordan’s zippy alto saxophone to indicate why his music was seminal in the development of rock and roll.

Woody Herman was one of a triumvirate of big-name white bandleaders who played clarinet but he was more of a blues specialist than either Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw. Indeed, he labeled his orchestra ‘The Band That Plays The Blues.’ Blues On Parade is a swinger by trombonist Toby Tyler, based loosely on Rossini’s ‘Stabat Mater’, with a catchy trombone counter-melody. The alto solo is Herman’s and the fiery trumpet is by Cappy Lewis. With Sarah Vaughan’s version of Lover Man, another cabaret song that feels like a blues, we move squarely onto the high ground of modern jazz. Vaughan was the most harmonically advanced singer of her generation. Always cool-sounding, she phrased and improvised like a musician, at one with the bebop experimenters, chief among them trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. He’s heard here, muted, his great compadre, the alto innovator Charlie Parker confined to the background on this elegant piece.

By the mid-Forties, bebop had become the new orthodoxy in jazz and it continues to inform the main thrust of jazz performance to this day. While it may seem hard to link Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, after all, they sound markedly different from each other, one thing is clear, and that is that the blues was a common point of departure for them both, and a continuing source of inspiration for them and all their myriad successors.