Deciphering Culture

CLASS 3: THE BLUES COME TO THE WEST COAST

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The development of a West Coast blues style was predominantly the result of the migration of a large number of African Americans to the West Coast during World War II. The people that came seeking employment in California’s wartime industries brought their musical preference with them and new entertainment districts that catered to African Americans soon sprang up 0r enlarged. Within a few years, Central Avenue in Los Angeles, West Oakland and North Richmond were the sites of important nightclubs districts that served predominantly African American audiences. Most of the new immigrants came from the Southwestern states (Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma) and musicians were among their ranks. However, the rail lines that carried the migrants to Los Angeles (as the entry point to the West Coast) had been carrying musicians from the Southwest to L.A. for more than a decade before the start of World War II. Drawn by an established jazz scene and the lure of the movies, Southwestern musicians had begun to influence the musical culture of the West Coast by the mid-1930s.

This class session picks up the discussion of the musical roots of the West Coast blues where CLASS 2 left off (with early Texas urban blues) and looks at the influence of the Kansas City and Southwest Territory Bands, Jump Blues and the updated Texas Urban Blues had on the development of the development of the West Coast blues.

Big Band Swing (The Kansas City & Southwest Territory Bands):

Large Swing/Jazz bands (“Big Bands”) were very popular with audiences throughout the United States from the 1930s to the early 1950s. These large ensembles primarily performed dance music and frequently incorporated Blues into their repertoire. “Swing” began in the 1920s City in Kansas City, the commercial center for a vast area — as far south as Houston, as far west as Albuquerque and as far north as Wyoming and South Dakota. It was also the cultural center for the region and home to a sizeable African American population. Kansas City was one of the early centers of Ragtime and the repetitive bass figures and short melodic passages that were characteristic of Ragtime helped set the basis for the development of a Swing style based upon the “riff.” “Riffs”, short melodic figures presented in forceful rhythm, became the framework for ensemble performances that featured improvisation by the various band members. Blues were an important part of the repertoire of most Kansas City Big Bands. This was largely due to the influence of the Texas-based Big Bands, commonly known as Southwest Territory Bands.” More isolated from national musical trends than Kansas City, Texas Big Band styles were also heavily influenced by African American piano styles but more by Blues and Boogie-Woogie than Ragtime. Kansas City as the “provincial capitol” of the Southwest offered the most lucrative opportunities for musicians from throughout the Southwest and there was frequent movement of musicians back and forth between the Kansas City and Texas-based bands. The vocalists of the Territory Bands developed a shout style of Blues singing that crystallized during the 1930s and became another defining feature of the Kansas City Big Band style. A number of Kansas City Blues shouters, most notably Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris, would become popular Rhythm & Blues vocalists during the 1940s.

The Kansas City and Texas-based Big Bands introduced a number of instrumental developments that would have a significant influence on R & B. The first was the rise to prominence of the saxophone as a solo instrument. In the hands of expert players, tenor and alto saxophones were able to mimic the vocal performances of Blues singers. The two other important developments came mainly from the Territory Bands. It was in the Territory Bands, during the 1930s, that the electric guitar was introduced. Pioneered by three Texas artists—Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker (of Dallas), Eddie Durham (of San Marcos) and Charlie Christian (of Forth Worth)—electrification of the guitar significantly expanded the solo capabilities of the instrument. It was also in the Territory Bands, and some of the Kansas City-based bands, that a new style of solo instrumental performance was introduced that would become a staple of R & B, and later of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Tenor saxophonists, such as Big Jay McNeely of Kansas City and Illinois Jacquet of Houston, introduced the style of playing that came to be called “honking“. “Honkers” played their instrument with abandon, honking single notes, making sudden changes to freak high tones, and performing crazy stage antics. They built tension into their performances through the repetition of riffs with slight shifts in emphasis. Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra was one of the innovators of the Kansas City Big Band sound When Moten died in  1935, sideman Count Basie took over the band.

A later example (early 50s) of a Southwest Territory Band led by saxophonist Eddie Cleanhead Vinson:

By the early 1940s, many musicians were moving from the large Jazz and Swing bands into smaller combos. Some of these small combos were formed by Kansas City musicians, such as Charlie Parker and Kenny Clark, who were interested in developing a more exploratory and less dance-oriented style of Jazz. Other combos featured a more dance and vocally oriented form of performance that came to be known as Jump Blues (see next section). The typical Kansas City line-up for these combos consisted of electric guitar, tenor saxophone, string bass, piano and drums. Their repertoire featured Blues and novelty numbers). In both musical style and instrumentation, these combos were precursors of the R & B combos that would rise to prominence in the mid-1940s.

Jump Blues:

In the early 1940s, Jump Blues combos sprang up throughout the United States. The typical Jump Blues combo consisted of piano, guitar, bass, drums, a vocalist and a tenor or alto saxophonist (and sometimes a second horn). The piano, guitar, bass and drums provided rhythmic support for the vocalist and saxophonist, typically laying down a light Boogie-Woogie or shuffle rhythm. Jump Blues combos played up-tempo, Jazz-inflected songs (frequently blues) that featured a driving rhythm, shout style vocals, Boogie-Woogie style piano and honking saxophone solos. Jump Blues lyrics dealt with many of the standard topics of the Blues—love, sex, drinking, partying—but with an amused detachment untypical of other Blues styles. This amused detachment was also a feature of the performance style of Jump Blues vocalists. The lighthearted, good-time atmosphere was heightened by the frequent inclusion of novelty songs in the repertoire of Jump Blues combos.

The most influential Jump Blues artist was Louis Jordan who, with his Tympany Five, had fifty-seven hits on the black music charts between 1942 and 1951. Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five was one of the first black bands to cross over and have hits on the popular charts, and Jordan was one of the most popular entertainers of the 1940s with black and white audiences alike. During the mid-1930s, Jordan honed his skills as an alto saxophonist and a vocalist as a member of Chick Webb’s New York-based Jazz orchestra. After performing in the New York area for several years, Jordan’s career suddenly took off with the success of “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” on first the black and then the popular music charts. The song set the mold for his later hits: witty lyrics coolly, almost sardonically, sung to a light, crisp rhythm. Jordan sang very clearly with no trace of a regional accent. However, his solo breaks on alto saxophone reflected his early years as a musician in his native Arkansas. His sax playing had a grittier tone and more vocalized inflection than was typically used by Northeastern Jazz saxophonists. Jordan’s recordings were very popular with black audiences throughout the United States and Blues and Swing performers soon added his songs to their repertoires.

Jump Blues was particularly popular throughout the Southwest and a number of the artists from the Southwest (including T-Bone Walker) were instrumental in melding Jump Blues with other styles and creating the West Coast Blues.

Texas Urban Blues:

T-Bone Walker was the most instrumental figure in the development of a Texas Urban Blues style that synthesized elements of the Texas country blues, Texas piano blues, swing bands, and Jump Blues that resulted in a new Texas style of urban blues. In the late 1920s, Walker released two recordings on Columbia Records that were very much in the Texas Country Blues style set by Blind Lemon Jefferson. During the late 1920s, he was also performing with a sixteen-piece Territory Band that traveled throughout Texas and Oklahoma. In the mid-1930s, Walker moved to Los Angeles to accept a job as guitarist and vocalist with Les Hite’s big band. During the remainder of the decade he would develop an innovative style of blues guitar playing that explored the expanded possibilities that electrification of the instrument opened up. By the early 1940s, Walker had developed a jazzy, fluid style of playing the electric guitar that featured big band style accompaniment even in small group settings. Walker’s guitar playing and singing melded the relaxed intensity of the Texas Country Blues with the urbanity of the Kansas City Big Band sound and Jump Blues. The melding of this style with the popular jazz combo style of groups, such as the King Cole Trio (that featured vocalist Nat King Cole) was instrumental in the development of the West Coast Blues.

In an interview with blues scholar Paul Trynka in the mid-1990s, Memphis-based bluesman Little Milton described the extent of Walker’s influence on blues guitarists in the 1940s and 1950s and the new terrain it opened up for them.

Every guitar player has tried at one time or another to sound like T-Bone Walker….To me he set a style and example that there’s no way you could play the so-called progressive Blues without touching, somewhere in there, T-Bone Walker. It’s like a trumpet player trying to play a trumpet and trying not to play a note of Louis Armstrong or WC Handy. It’s literally impossible. He was the first guy to play single note solos, he used those Jazz chords, and his guitar accompanied his voice. He literally made the guitar sing to me, and talk to me. And most of the guitar players of that era were just chording, playing back-beat bass and stuff like that….his stuff spoke to me in a more sophisticated way. (Portrait of the Blues. America’s Blues Musicians in Their Own Words. N.Y.: Da Capo Press. 1997, p.64).

The YouTube video below is T-Bone Walker with the Les Hite Orchestra (15 piece ensemble) — recorded in 1940. Notice the lap steel guitar — a staple of Country music but rarely heard in blues or jazz. The video has well-written notes.

“Mean Old World,” recorded in 1942 in Hollywood, was T-Bone Walker’s break-through hit.

During the 1940s, a large number of Texas Blues artists relocated from Texas to California. Many of these artists would become influential figures in setting musical styles in California. Like the shipyard workers, the musicians followed the main railroad line from the areas they lived in. From Texas, the main railroad lines led west to Los Angeles. These railroad lines would subsequently become a route of musical interchange, carrying musicians and musical styles back and forth between Texas and California. The Texas Urban and Country Blues musicians who relocated to California often drew upon the diverse range of musical styles available in Texas, which included much more than the Blues. Ragtime, Boogie-Woogie, country ballads, and Western Swing would also influence the musical styles that emerged in California during the 1940s and early 1950s. The center of development for these new musical styles was in Los Angeles, which became the major point of genesis for the collection of musical styles that would be labeled the West Coast Blues.

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Written by Jeffrey Callen

April 13, 2010 at 5:34 pm

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