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The Gig: Jazz in Hard Times

In the annals of recorded music, there may not be a more exuberant three-minute salvo than “Shoe Shine Boy,” one of a handful of sides made by the entity of Jones-Smith, Incorporated. Opening with a spring-loaded piano intro by Count Basie, it rides an irresistible current, both jaunty and relaxed. Lester Young takes his first-ever tenor saxophone solo on record, his tone as bright and radiant as early-morning sunshine. Carl Smith, one of the session’s putative leaders, says his piece on trumpet; Jo Jones does the same, and more, on drums. The effort comes awfully close to a pure expression of joy.

“Shoe Shine Boy” was made in 1936, in the middle of the Great Depression. And in that regard it’s hardly exceptional. This was also the period, after all, that gave us Benny Goodman’s small-group sessions, and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra recording “Happy as the Day Is Long.” Then there were Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, delivering equally sanguine work (including their own respective versions of “Shoe Shine Boy”). To put it simply, the hour of our greatest hardship coincided with a golden age for jazz, when the music was not only a creative force but also a popular entertainment, and a national source of comfort.

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Originally Published
Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).