This week on Jazz Spectrum – March 30, 2024

Horace Silver: Is it Bop, and, If So, Is It Hard?

By Fritz Byers

There’s nothing like teaching a class to help you learn.  A blog post or two ago I mentioned I’m teaching a jazz-history class.  Here’s a thanks to Lourdes for letting me do it and to the students for being so thoughtful and giving me so much to think about.

Since Tuesday’s class I’ve been thinking about hard bop – you know, the style that emerged as a reaction to cool jazz, which was a reaction to bop, which was a reaction to swing, which . . ..  The semester has confirmed for me that labels are a handy way to organize eras and influences, but beyond that they serve primarily to spare you from having to listen more closely and to think a little harder.

Speaking of harder, what exactly does the “hard” in “hard bop” connote?  That’s more or less what someone asked in class last week.  Good question.  I likely fumbled the answer then, and, a few days later, I’m not sure I’m any closer to having much of value to say on the subject.  But here we go . . .

It’s not just laziness to say that one way to know something is hard bop is to say it was played in the fifties and it wasn’t cool jazz or played by musicians who gigged at the Lighthouse at Hermosa Beach.  Still, that’s a big tent.  

Hard bop reflects a return to Afro-centric stylings, sure, but then you have to account for Pepper Adams, Ira Sullivan, and a few other white hard-boppers.  Joe Zawinul was among them, long before he and Wayne Shorter formed Weather Report.  

Funk and the blues were at the center of hard bop, but then the blues has been in the jazz cauldron since the music was first stirred up, whenever and wherever that mystery occurred.  “Funk” meant something way different in the 50s than it would come to mean twenty years later.  The pianist Horace Silver popularized the term in the fifties (Viz. his 1953 composition “Opus de Funk”) and he had in mind a groove and feeling that combined simple melodies, chord progressions, and song forms, with elements of gospel and several subgenres of the blues – off-hand I’d say Chicago, Memphis, and Jump, but that’s just a layperson’s slightly educated guesswork.

You can say hard bop was incubated in the hot-house jazz clubs that dotted northern cities.  But what I realized in class this week was that Miles’s first great quintet was not really hard-bop, even though the tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and the drummer Philly Joe Jones were schooled in the Philadelphia club scene, and the bassist Paul Chambers grew up in nearby Pittsburgh.  Moreover, the instrumentation of the group – trumpet, tenor, and rhythm section – is archetypal for hard-bop groups.  

Still, listening with the class this week to “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” from the 1956 recording Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet made clear to all of us that the reaction to cool and west-coast jazz had multiple strands, and Miles’s music at the time wasn’t really hard-bop.  For now, let’s call Miles’s first great quintet post-bop, so we can preserve the term “hard bop” for music that is distinct, with differing qualities.

Let’s try this: Horace Silver.  Horace could do plenty of things on the piano.  Exhibit 1 for that is “The St. Vitus Dance” on the 1959 recording, Blowin’ the Blues Away, an astonishing tour-de-force and a high point in the evolution of the piano trio.   (And we should remember that Horace got his first break in 1950, when, as he was woodshedding and picking up casual gigs, the saxophonist Stan Getz recruited Horace and his trio.  Stan went on to become, well, of course, one of the poster children for cool jazz.  So, yes, like every other tale of art history, it’s complicated.)

But for the most part, from his ascendence in the early 1950s, Horace’s music, including his many compositions, were marked by the features I mention above – simple, riff-based melodies, solos that doodled repeatedly over certain short note-clusters, percussive playing,  and, well, a funky feel.  The facial simplicity of his playing is belied by the inarguable fact that he is among the most influential pianists in jazz history, representing a third way forward, an alternative to the daunting legacy of Bud Powell and the melodic beauties and harmonic sophistications of Bill Evans.

This week’s Jazz Spectrum begins with a track from Doin’ the Thing, a live recording that captures Horace and his most admired quintet in performance at the Village Gate in May 1961.  The front line here comprises Blue Mitchell on trumpet and Junior Cook on tenor saxophone.  The bassist Gene Taylor and the drummer Roy Brooks complete the group.

The tune you’ll hear is a Horace classic, “Filthy McNasty.”  It begins with a spoken introduction by Horace.  (This cracks me up – Horace’s pre-performance patter appears on several sites online as the “lyrics” to the song.  So if you want to read what he says, you can easily track it down.  Very helpful.)

You’ll hear the tune for yourself, so you don’t need my description.  But I think you’ll hear some of the musical features mentioned here, features that, if the term means anything at all, define Hard Bop.

Song of the Week – “Somebody Loves Me”


By Fritz Byers and Aly Krajewski
As a new feature of the Jazz Spectrum Blog, Fritz and Contributing Writer Aly Krajewski will exchange thoughts about the week’s Song of the Week.  JS listeners know that SotW is a regular feature of the Saturday night show – Fritz devotes two sets, beginning at 10 pm, to varying versions of a single tune from the jazz repertoire.  
Fritz and Aly’s exchanges will typically entail Fritz telling Aly the tunes he selected that week’s selections; Aly, who is unusually steeped in mid-Century American culture, responding in whatever way she chooses; and perhaps further dialogue.  Occasionally, they’ll reverse roles.
This is the premiere of the new feature.
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Hey Aly,
I’m happy to know that we’re setting out on this journey together and eager to see where it leads us and you lead me.

Jazz Spectrum Blog

This week’s Song of the Week is “Somebody Loves Me.”  Since you know everything, I’m sure you know the song, and you likely know George Gershwin wrote the music.  But you may be surprised to know the lyrics are by, not brother Ira, but Ballard MacDonald and Buddy DeSylva.   This song is, to my knowledge, Ballard’s high-water mark as a lyricist.  Although he wrote a few other well-known songs (my favorite is “You’re the Cream in My Coffee), Buddy is probably best known as the co-founder of Capitol Records. 
The tune was published in 1924, and there were several recordings of the tune that year, most prominently by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra.  We’ll hear that version this Saturday.  But the set opens with Fletcher Henderson’s 1930 recording.  Paul’s 1924 recording is instrumental, so I’ll play Fletcher’s first to present the lyrics and how they fit the melody.  On Fletcher’s version, the vocal is by an all-male quartet.  After that, back to Paul.  Then the first set ends with the singer Helen Humes’s 1948 version and an obscure version by the oft-overlooked violinist Eddie South from 1937.   Eddie wanted to be a classical violinist, and he certainly had the chops for that, but in the 1920s there was no realistic chance of that for a black musician.  He was a great soloist, as you’ll hear.  This is the start of a quiet campaign here at JS to revive his reputation.
The second set opens with Dinah Washington, followed by one of Lester Young’s recordings of the song while with Verve – this is the one that is less widely available, but to my ears it shows more of Lester’s brilliant melodic twists.  Hilary Kole is next – sort of a cabaret singer, far less recorded than her singing warrants; there are some great You Tube videos that show her style.  And then one of my favorite recordings: the clarinetist Don Byron from his marvelous 2004 release, Ivey-Divey.  
Now, Aly, I think you’re ready to plunge in.  I’m eager to read your reactions and thoughts.
* * * * * *
Hey Fritz,
I have my swim-cap on and I am ready to dive headfirst into the sopping wet world of jazz.

Though I have an entry point into "Somebody Loves Me" as a song, it’s not through traditional means; and I definitely wasn't aware that this was a non-Ira-affiliated Gershwin tune. (Did George prefer to only work with men who have the silliest names, or was that a fluke of good fortune?) In my tertiary googling of the songwriters, I learned that Ballard & Buddy penned this song with Gershwin for a feature in George White's Scandals of 1924. All of the 1920's follies-adjacent productions seemed to have the most thinly-veiled and slightly threatening names, and this is no different. Though I know nothing of his scandals, Mr. White kept this revue going for almost 20 years. And for those who care, George White was an American theatrical producer and director who also was an actor, choreographer, composer, dancer, lyricist, and screenwriter– his most interesting accolade being his appearing in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1915, where he popularized the Turkey Trot dance. And really, where would we be without that contribution to the American dance catalogue? Up DeSylva's Creek, that's where!

But I digress. The B-Boys (as I have just now decided to nickname Ballard & Buddy) and Gershwin sure knew how to write a lyrical earworm of a song. You dutifully noted that there was a popular version of this track done by Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra in 1925. There is also a delightfully weird 1920s version by Cliff Edwards – Ukelele Ike – that is amusing more than it is critically praised. I applaud your choosing to share Eddie South's version instead of Ike's in this case, not only because Mr. South beats Ike in the Weird Name Bracket I'm keeping score on, but also because Eddie's fiddle speaks much more clearly about this song than Ike's uke could ever do.

I'm a firm believer that the clarinet makes almost every song better regardless of the original artist's intent of the song. I wouldn't hesitate to bonk the B-Boys' heads together if they took umbrage with Byron's 2004 version. And I can't think of a better instrument to feature on a song that lyrically focuses on the concept of "not knowing exactly who loves me, so I'm going to wander around and tell everyone about my suspicions" than the reedy, flitting tone of a wet clarinet. I firmly agree that this should be one of your favorite versions!

All of this to say the true thesis of this note (and my true feelings about this song): The first time I ever heard "Somebody Loves Me" was through none of these previously mentioned versions. Rather, I was exposed to this song through a version that Dean Martin performed on his hit variety show with Carol Lawrence in 1969 or 1970. It's a cute clip: Dean flubs the lines the first time through and the audience is in stitches, while Carol tries to play it off coolly. They end up restarting the song, and the whole snafu is captured in the final print. I remember being more enamored with this rapport on-screen than with the tune itself. We can't fault Martin & Lawrence for this too harshly, though – "Dean" and "Carol" are no match for the Ballards and Buddys of the named world. And at least they brought this song to television light in a time when, I would assume, not many people would have a Gershwin tune on-rotation. 

This thread of conversation did pique my interest in thinking about how songs transmutate over time, not necessarily in any melody or lyrical changes, but more in how they are received by the generations who choose to focus energy on them. You have a soft spot for the original versions of this tune, it's clear to see that in your honorable set of versions. And your passion for this song allowed me to think more critically about it, too. Without your suggestion to give this song a chance, I would only think of it as a quirky little ditty that Dean Martin couldn't remember the first line of on his show (whether his forgetfulness was through alcoholism or other means, who knows?). Mr. Martin's reverence for jazz and his own stylization of standard tunes refreshed many-a-song for his audience of the day. This solidifies an opinion I've held for a long time: without the use of jazz instrumentation, jazz appreciation, or jazz sensibilities, many a Great American Song would have been quickly lost to the sands of time.  

Indeed, somebody loves this song. Clearly, it's you.

Jazz Spectrum