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JazzTimes 10: Classic New Orleans Recordings

Essential tracks by Jelly Roll, Kid, Bunk, Satchmo, and more

As anyone who has spent even an afternoon in New Orleans knows, that city’s traditional jazz has never gone away. But those of us who spend our time in other places tend not to give that music much attention. It’s associated with decrepit and too-fast silent movie footage, and cartoons. Swing, bebop, and subsequent styles are so much more sophisticated.

Of course, the secret to New Orleans jazz is that it’s incredibly sophisticated. It’s also the bedrock of all jazz that followed, meaning that even if we don’t instantly detect it, it’s never gone away for us, either. The music is still exciting, profound, and ahead of its time today, and it’s worthy of our attention. We don’t have the sounds of jazz’s very beginning: Trumpeter Buddy Bolden is usually regarded as Jazzman Zero, but aside from anecdotes and a scratchy circa-1905 photograph, there’s no documentation of him. (The notion persists that he made an old wax cylinder record, but we have yet to find it.) For all intents and purposes, though, these 10 records give us the foundation. All except the first entry are in chronological order.

5. Clarence Williams’ Blue Five: “House Rent Blues (The Stomp)” (Clarence Williams with Louis Armstrong & Sidney Bechet; Giants of Jazz, 2015 [originally recorded Nov. 14, 1923])

5. Clarence Williams’ Blue Five: “House Rent Blues (The Stomp)” (<i>Clarence Williams with Louis Armstrong & Sidney Bechet</i>; Giants of Jazz, 2015 [originally recorded Nov. 14, 1923])
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After Oliver, the most important early New Orleans virtuoso was Sidney Bechet, who played clarinet and soprano saxophone. In Bechet’s hands, the two instruments were difficult to distinguish; he played the soprano with the fuller, rounder tone that the clarinet possesses, and he played both with a quavering vibrato that is distinct almost to the point of being confrontational. “House Rent Blues (The Stomp)” is really his record, despite Clarence Williams (a pianist, but more of a promoter and producer) being the above-the-title artist. The soprano sax is the dominant instrument in the ensemble section, and Bechet’s solo takes up most of the record’s final third. It’s a series of breaks that, like his vibrato, come off as dares: “Play as good as me. Go on, give it your best shot.”

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring all of the songs in this JazzTimes 10:

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.