Historical Essays
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48 versions of "St. Louis Blues"
by Thomas Cunniffe
Part 2
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Earl Hines’ 1940 “Boogie Woogie on St. Louis Blues” was a hit record for his big band. Hines maintains the boogie pattern for the first minute or so, then hints at it for the rest of the arrangement. Hines introduces his extended tremolo trick before returning to the boogie pattern for the coda. The band does not play very much on this side, and I suspect that George Dixon’s spoken comments were added to spice up the proceedings. While many Americans enjoyed the big bands of Earl Hines and his peers, they were not so happy to hear recordings by a group called “Charlie and his Orchestra”. Their records were produced in Berlin by the Nazi Party in an effort to sneak propaganda into Allied jukeboxes. The 78s were printed without label credits, and at the beginning of the sides, they sounded like typical big bands. However, the lyrics were filled with vile racism, and the Nazis thought that once the records had started playing on the jukebox, there would be no way to stop them. The version of “St. Louis Blues” features rather innocuous references to the Battle of Britain and Winston Churchill; later recordings in the series were much more offensive. American big bands were part of “the war effort” and in effect, tools of propaganda (although usually without “special lyrics”). Apart from its wartime connections, it’s impossible to regard Glenn Miller’s “St. Louis Blues March” as anything but a superbly played and arranged adaptation of the Handy classic. Propelled by a swinging snare drum march beat—could this be the genesis of “The Blues March”?—the piece strides along with a breezy air of confidence. And even though this recording was led by the most white-bread of all bandleaders, it was convincingly used at the conclusion of the film “A Soldier’s Story” to portray the black battalion’s pride in receiving their orders to enter combat.

In 1929, Bessie Smith made her only film appearance, and she sang “St. Louis Blues” with a large orchestra and chorus featuring James P. Johnson. As one of the earliest Harlem stride pianists, Handy’s song was probably a longtime part of Johnson’s repertoire. However, it was not until 1945 that he recorded a solo piano version. Most of the performance is in boogie-woogie style, and despite the fact that Johnson had suffered a stroke, his time and coordination are quite good for the first half of the recording (he rushes the tempo from then on). If it wasn’t for the tango section, we could hardly call this a version of “St. Louis Blues” at all. Johnson barely hints at the melody except at the beginning and end of the tango. Although there is another hint of the tune in one of the later blues choruses, it is such a generic idea that it could have come from another improvisation. Erroll Garner’s trio version was recorded in 1953, but it fits into this style period quite well. It is a particularly good introduction to Garner, as it offers the pianist’s elegant rhapsodic style in the opening choruses, a grandiose tango section that reappears at the coda and the romping “Garner strut” in the closing choruses. Mary Lou Williams embraced every new jazz style that came her way. Her 1944 solo piano version is predominantly a swing/boogie rendition, but the angular lines at the end of the introduction and in her final chorus hint at the bebop movement that was still developing at the time. Also noteworthy is Williams’ strong left hand that swings mightily even when she plays staccato notes in the bass.

When bebop dominated the jazz scene after World War II, it was met with strong opposition from established musicians. Handy was one of bebop’s detractors and he tried (unsuccessfully) to stop the release of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band version. From its opening—borrowed from Charlie Parker’s modern blues “Parker’s Mood”—to its brash exposition of the melody, it’s easy to see why Handy disapproved. However, Gillespie’s version is an audacious translation of the standard into the language of bop. Arranger Budd Johnson maintained much of the Handy original in his treatment and supplemented it with the Gillespie spirit and style. In addition to Gillespie’s trumpet, there is an early example of a tenor player later known as Yusef Lateef. Gillespie and Mario Bauza had been friends since their time in Cab Calloway’s trumpet section, and both men were innovators in the fusion of Latin and bop styles. Bauza is the lead trumpeter on Machito’s brilliant Latin transformation of “St. Louis Blues”. The uncredited arrangement, which may be the work of Chico O’Farrill or Bauza himself, makes the Handy classic sound like it was meant to mambo, and the splendid execution of the parts by the horns and rhythm will make every listener want to dance. Babs Gonzales’ enthusiastic bop scatting enlivens his version of “St. Louis Blues”. Like Cab Calloway two decades before, Gonzales inserts new lyrics to talk about the women of New York City. While Gonzales was a through-and-through modernist, he brought in older players to fill out his recording groups. Here, Fletcher Henderson’s old arranger Don Redman plays soprano saxophone next to the young boppers Sonny Rollins and J.J. Johnson! This was Rollins’ second recording date, and his two-chorus solo showcases his penchant for sequencing and developing improvised ideas. Wynton Kelly was also new on the scene, and while he does not have a solo on this track, he was obviously having a lot of fun playing fills in the tango section. The Kenny Clarke/James Moody version was recorded in Paris, and aside from Moody’s humorous growling tenor on the melody, it is a straightforward modern jazz treatment. Moody displays his unique approach to improvised melody and rhythm, pianist Errol Parker shows an affinity for (if not the blazing technique of) Bud Powell, Pierre Michelot creates a fine horn-like bass solo, and Clarke matches every contrasting mood of his band mates.

Metronome magazine was one of the top jazz periodicals from the 1930s through the early 1960s. Each year, the magazine held a reader’s poll for an all-star band. The winners were gathered as an ensemble and they recorded a small group of sides together, with the proceeds going to charity. The 1953 band was an interesting mixture of swing, cool and bop players. Yet, despite these differences in style, they coalesced into an excellent group. Their version of “St. Louis Blues” was split over two sides of a disc, with Billy Eckstine heavily featured in the slow first half (with Lester Young and Roy Eldridge providing obbligatos), and most of the band featured in the fast jam in the second half. Max Roach kicks the tempo up for solos by Terry Gibbs, Kai Winding, Eckstine (scatting with Billy Bauer in support) and Young. After his solo, Eldridge leads the way out. Helen Humes, formerly with Count Basie, enjoyed renewed popularity in the 1950s. Her blistering fast “St. Louis Blues” features a splendid arrangement by Marty Paich and a top-notch big band with some of the best musicians working on the West Coast. At a time when the jazz recorded in California was being written off as bloodless, this performance shows that there was plenty of fire out west. Humes’ opening choruses contain lyrics from Handy’s original, but after solos by Art Pepper and Jack Sheldon, she introduces unique variations on standard blues stanzas. On paper, Jo Stafford’s version doesn’t make much sense: a blues recording with big band, strings, Latin percussion and background vocals. Yet, Stafford’s husband, Paul Weston, combines these disparate forces into a unified whole, and Stafford herself, through her earnest delivery and superb musicianship ties it all together. Neither Humes nor Stafford could be said to have the deep emotional impact of a Bessie Smith, but they weren’t aiming for that goal in the first place. Their versions display the universal appeal of Handy’s song and how it remained flexible for all sorts of interpretations.

Big Joe Turner was closer to the soul of the blues, but his swinging 1956 version is as light-hearted as the Humes and Stafford versions. Recorded as Turner’s popularity was surging due to his connections with early rock and roll and R&B, the arrangement seems designed for dancing. The feel is very relaxed and Turner’s last two choruses—added spontaneously during the session—are delightful additions, even if they have no relation to Handy’s original lyrics. Ella Fitzgerald was not a blues singer, and her 1963 album, “These Are The Blues” has been maligned by critics for many years. But it’s really not as bad as you might think. Her somber version of “St. Louis Blues” is closer to the spirit of the lyrics than many of the vocal recordings from this period, and she admirably communicates the sorrow of a rejected woman. When she deviates from Handy’s lyric, her words seem to continue the original narrative.  Roy Eldridge, who toured with Fitzgerald during this period, offers a running commentary on trumpet with buzz mute, and Wild Bill Davis anchors the rhythm section on organ. As his career grew during the late 1950s, Jimmy Witherspoon surrounded himself with an all-star group of jazz musicians including Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan and Jimmy Rowles. This powerfully swinging version was recorded at the Renaissance in Los Angeles, and it features Webster at his most passionate and Rowles at his wittiest. Witherspoon’s intense delivery peaks with his final two choruses which gives the St. Louis woman powers in voodoo and witchcraft.

Webster’s former boss and his primary saxophone soloist, Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges recorded “St. Louis Blues” as part of a blues-dominated set issued under Hodges’ name. Ellington sets the medium tempo with the rhythm section, and then Hodges and trumpeter Harry Edison bounce ideas back and forth through the exposition. Hodges loved to play the blues, and he digs deep for his choruses with swooping bent notes, his trademark creamy sound and a little grit in his attack. In the outer choruses of his solo, Edison makes the most out of minimal phrases, while opening up a little more in the middle of his statement. Ellington improvises a stark melodic line in his first chorus and contrasts it with chordal ideas in his second chorus. Hodges returns for a single chorus that seems rooted in big band riffs and then Edison joins him to close with a powerful repeated motive. Louis Armstrong’s majestic 1954 version was the opening track of an album devoted to Handy’s music. When Handy came to the studio to listen to the session tapes with Armstrong, the now-blind composer was brought to tears by the arrangement and doubled over with laughter at Armstrong’s additional lyrics. One of those stanzas, regarding a picket fence, makes for uncomfortable listening today, but the rest of the performance is simply brilliant, from Armstrong’s resilient trumpet lead and his easy chemistry with vocalist Velma Middleton, to the fine supporting solos by Barney Bigard and Tyree Glenn.

Miles Davis was born and raised in the St. Louis metropolitan area, but he never recorded a version of Handy’s paean to his hometown. Following the success of Davis’ collaboration with composer/arranger Gil Evans “Miles Ahead”, Evans recorded two albums for Pacific Jazz that presented his unique takes on revered jazz standards. The first of these albums featured alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, who had recently joined Davis’ sextet. Since the albums moved chronologically through jazz history, the opening arrangement was, fittingly, “St. Louis Blues”. Adderley opens unaccompanied, displaying his rich and soulful sound, and when the band enters, we hear a fresh approach to instrumental voicing and abundant energy in the band. In fact, the listener might be so taken with Evans’ orchestration that he misses Adderley’s passionate delivery of the melody. In the tango, Evans layers a number of colors including guitar/piano/trumpet tremolos, parallel moving trombones, habanera rhythm in bass and drums and Adderley’s improvised alto. Few arrangers would have dared to include such a dense texture, but Evans makes it all work together. When the tempo picks up for Adderley’s solo, listen for a catchy background riff behind him and then marvel at how Evans develops it into a shout chorus. Dizzy Gillespie’s 1959 version is far less revolutionary than his big band version. In fact, he performed this version on a television show that same year. Gillespie performs a muted solo that is loaded with intensity, and Les Spann offers support to the leader with his stunning guitar commentary. The rhythm section opens up during Spann’s solo turn, which utilizes the parallel octave style later popularized by Wes Montgomery. Junior Mance’s funky piano leads to a Lex Humphries drum solo over the same clapping rhythm used in the introduction.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet was one of the most popular instrumental groups in jazz history. Its intellectual, yet passionate approach to modern jazz was embraced by college-educated listeners, many of whom first heard the group during a series of college concerts in the early 50s. Brubeck opened nearly all of his concerts with “St. Louis Blues”, as it proved to be an excellent vehicle to establish the evening’s mood. This was especially true at their Carnegie Hall concert in 1963. The performance starts in the song’s original key of G major, but when alto saxophonist Paul Desmond enters for his solo, the key abruptly changes to E-flat. Desmond’s wistfully cool alto sails through thirteen choruses as the swing deepens in the rhythm section. Brubeck modulates back to G and then yields for Gene Wright’s bass solo, which ends with the unusual note choice of an E natural. Brubeck picks up the note and before long, he is playing in E with his left hand and in G with his right! While Brubeck had played polytonally before, this was the first time he had improvised with this particular key relationship. His solo is also notable for his keen development and expansion of his improvised ideas. While his days of being a classical composer were still ahead of him, he was honing those skills on the bandstand. Joe Morello plays a brief but exciting drum solo after Brubeck, and his solo makes for an interesting comparison with the percussionist on the next track, Max Roach. Roach’s “St. Louis Blues” was recorded in 1965 with the obscure soprano saxophonist Roland Alexander, the unfairly neglected alto saxophonist James Spaulding and the much better-known trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Roach’s arrangement is a kaleidoscope of varying tempos and meters, starting in waltz time, moving to a faster three-beat and then to a burning fast 4/4 for the main solos. Alexander has superb control over the straight horn and a flood of inspired ideas, Hubbard spices up his work with sharp-edged growls and Spaulding displays an excellent concept of time. Roach, who was an expert at quick tempos, creates a stunning solo that mixes brilliant technique with his own melodic approach to percussion.

The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra started as a rehearsal band in 1965. The next year, it started a tradition of playing on Monday nights at the Village Vanguard, and that tradition continues to this day, surviving the death of both of its leaders and ongoing personnel shifts. While much of the band’s repertoire was contributed by Jones (a superb arranger whose unique approach to instrumentation and voicing became as influential as Gil Evans), many of the band’s earliest charts were written by valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. By the time the band recorded Brookmeyer’s elaborate chart on “St. Louis Blues” in October 1968, the trombonist had left the group for an extended stay in California. Brookmeyer’s arrangement opens with an original blues melody which is followed by an eerie, hollow-sounding voicing of the Handy melody. Brookmeyer’s introduction returns behind Jones, and Handy’s melody reappears in the midst of Garnett Brown’s trombone solo. Throughout the work, Brookmeyer varies the backgrounds behind the soloists, and also gives some of them the opportunity to play unaccompanied. The a cappella solo section also proves to be an effective segue between soloists as Jerome Richardson takes the solo spotlight from Brown. The opening choruses of Jones’ solo are backed with a funky two-beat background. After the backgrounds move into a straight-ahead 4/4, there is another sudden shift in soloists as Roland Hanna plays a very traditional sounding piano solo which effectively contrasts with the return of Brookmeyer’s original melody.

The Dave Brubeck/Marian McPartland version comes from an episode of McPartland’s long-running public radio series “Piano Jazz”. McPartland was an established piano voice when she started the show in 1978, but with her exposure to a wide variety of pianists who were guests on the show came a deepening sense of style and conviction, even as she approached her 93rd birthday. She was always a gracious host and let her guests lead the way in piano duets. Brubeck, whose style had become less percussive and more subtle over the years, plays solo for the first several minutes of this duet, displaying a modified stride style, rich polytonality, and several surprising improvised ideas. After he verbally encourages McPartland to join him, she becomes a vital partner in the duet, taking chances and developing unusual ideas of her own. When the two join forces for a rocking variation, it sounds like the arrangement is coming to an end, but there are plenty more surprises in store, including an impressionistic take on the tango section and a gradually building variation built on the triplets introduced by McPartland a few minutes earlier. The Cleo Laine/John Dankworth version from 1991 is not in print at present, but several low-priced copies are now available on Amazon. The album “Jazz” is one of Laine’s finest later efforts, and comes highly recommended. While Dankworth’s arrangement of “St. Louis Blues” is tightly crafted, it is loose enough to allow the performers room for interpretation. Laine, a versatile performer with an astonishing range, gets to display her expertise in each part of her voice, use her voice as an instrument and exchange improvised thoughts with Dankworth. The exuberant performance swings even in the funk sections and the band transitions effortlessly between the funk and straight-ahead jazz episodes. And, in a master stroke of arranging technique, Dankworth spreads out the exposition of the melody throughout the length of the arrangement.

While the Cleo Laine closes the compilation, it is far from the end of the “St. Louis Blues” story. Several noteworthy versions have appeared in the past two decades, including an Anat Cohen version reviewed elsewhere on this site. As “St. Louis Blues” approaches its centenary, it still inspires new versions and interpretations. What a legacy for a southern preacher, a downhearted woman and a young composer.