In fact, if you’ve been following here for awhile, you know that I often try to underline ways in which musical genre “typing” of songs is more of a marketing device than descriptive of anything intrinsic to given pieces of music. The fact is, especially in the first half of the 20th century the dividing lines between genres was pretty blurry. That’s not to say there were no distinctions made—the fact that music was divided racially obviously imposed a big distinction. But beyond that, categories were much more fluid.
This is perhaps most true when we look at the distinction between jazz & blues. Now I acknowledge the differences between, for example, the music of Charlie Patton & the music of Sidney Bechet. But it’s also true that both these musicians & many were drawing from a common pool of musical ideas. The flatted thirds, fifths & sevenths of blues are also the flatted thirds, fifths & sevenths of jazz—to non musicians, it means the rather than the scale running simply do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do, the tones mi flat, sol flat & ti flat are added in blues & jazz. These tones don’t replace the unflattened forms, especially in the case of mi & sol, but exist alongside them as complementary forms that add depth & color to the underlying scale.
Today’s recording dates from 1923, & as such it’s an early example of fusing jazz & blues. “Dippermouth Blues” (a 12-bar blues in its harmonic bare bones) was co-written by King Oliver & Louis Armstrong, & is here performed by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, which featured Oliver & Armstrong on cornets, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Honore Dutrey on trombone, Lil Hardin (soon to become Lil Hardin Armstrong) on piano, Bill Johnson on banjo & Baby Dodds on drums—however, for the purposes of recording Dodds is playing a wood block. This recording was done thru an acoustic horn, & these devices couldn’t reproduce either drums or bass instruments without considerable distortion, so early jazz recordings featured drummers playing something less resonant than a kit.
It’s worth noting that the cornet solo on “Dippermouth Blues” is taken by King Oliver, not by Armstrong—Armstrong was “second cornet” in the band—tho the song’s title refers to Armstrong’s large mouth! Oliver’s three chorus solo is justifiably famous—here’s what music critic Ted Gioa has written about Oliver’s playing on this song:
Early New Orleans jazz was about the quality of sound rather than the quantity of notes, and Oliver was the great master of getting the cornet to speak with a vocal tone. His range is limited here, and his phrases are built on only two or three notes of the scale. But his down-and-dirty sound captures the ethos of jazz as it emerged at the dawn of the American century.
Terry Teachout in his Louis Armstrong biography Pops also writes about Oliver’s sound: “Oliver used mutes to alter the timbre of his cornet, making it cry like a baby or curse like a man….” This is important when we consider the blues-jazz link, because both the “down & dirty sound” described by Gioa & the use of an instrument to replicate the human voice as described by Teachout are prominent elements in both blues & jazz.
This is a great song, folk—enjoy!