Historical Essays

  • 48 versions of “St. Louis Blues”
    W.C. Handy's St. Louis Blues was written nearly 100 years ago, and it has inspired thousands of recorded versions. Thomas Cunniffe examines four dozen jazz versions in this month's Historical Essay. A playlist is available for readers who want to listen along.
    Django Reinhardt is widely acclaimed as the first non-American jazz musician to develop a unique solo style. Yet, his earliest recordings with the Quintette of the Hot Club of France show that the guitarist was still learning jazz licks and grasping the concept of solo construction. Within five years, Reinhardt was indeed a master soloist, working within the jazz language without sacrificing the sound of his Roma heritage. Thomas Cunniffe traces Reinhardt's development through a 12-song embedded playlist in this Historical Essay.
  • Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Such Sweet Thunder”
    Newly revised to include the premiere performance in Stratford! In 1956, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn spent a week at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. Inspired by the performances of the Bard's plays, Ellington promised that he and Strayhorn would write a new Shakespeare-inspired suite for the next year's festival. The result was Such Sweet Thunder, one of the most highly acclaimed albums in the Ellington discography. In this Historical Essay, Thomas Cunniffe explores the suite in depth, offering historical and musical background for this important recording. A rare aircheck of the Ellington orchestra performing portions of the suite is also included in this extended article.
  • Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts
    Duke Ellington considered his three Sacred Concerts to be his most important works. Many critics disagreed, but as Thomas Cunniffe argues in this Historical Essay, Ellington was trying to spread his personal view of religion to a wide swath of listeners, and as a result, his music moved from the lofty to the commonplace with stunning frequency.
  • Fats Waller at the Pipe Organ
    Fats Waller recorded over 70 sides on pipe organs in Camden, New Jersey and London, England. Thomas Cunniffe examines this unique recorded legacy in an extended essay.
  • Frankie Newton: The Forgotten Trumpeter (part I)
    Despite appearing on some of the greatest jazz records of the 1930s, and possessing one of the most personal sounds in jazz history, trumpeter Frankie Newton is barely remembered today. His biography is filled with contradictory information, and his discography has several mysterious gaps. Thomas Cunniffe sorts out the conflicting details and discusses all of Newton's recordings in this special 2-part Historical Essay.
  • Frankie Newton: The Forgotten Trumpeter (part II)
    In the second part of this extended Historical Essay, Thomas Cunniffe explores Frankie Newton's life and music from 1938 through his death in 1954. In addition to examining Newton's recordings, Cunniffe also discusses the likely reasons for Newton's absence in the studios from 1939-1943 and 1946-1954.
  • JATP at The Opera House
    In 1957, Norman Granz launched the 18th tour of Jazz at the Philharmonic. The concerts yielded 5 separate albums featuring Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Stan Getz, J.J. Johnson, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge and the JATP All-Stars. All of the albums were titled At the Opera House but on four of the five albums, the mono editions were recorded at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles! In this Historical Essay, Thomas Cunniffe sorts out the discographical maze and discusses all five of the albums in both their mono and stereo editions.
  • Jazz Adaptations of “Porgy and Bess”
    George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" lives in two disparate worlds: opera and popular music. With an award-winning, but controversial production running on Broadway, the show has never been more popular. In this Historical Essay, Thomas Cunniffe discusses several jazz adaptations of this American masterwork.
  • Mel, Marty & the Dek-tette
    The recorded collaborations between vocalist Mel Tormé and arranger Marty Paich were arguably the highlights of each man's career. The albums they recorded with a 10-piece studio ensemble, the Marty Paich Dek-tette are some of the finest vocal LPs ever made. Thomas Cunniffe's study of this music was originally part of his Master's Thesis, and has been published on several websites over the past two decades. This newly-revised edition of the article marks its first appearance on Jazz History Online.
  • Paul Desmond and the Canadians
    In the last decade of his life, Paul Desmond only performed occasionally. But when he hired three exceptional Canadian musicians, (Ed Bickert, Don Thompson and Jerry Fuller) to back him for a club date, the music inspired Desmond to some of his finest performances. After years of legal entanglements, Mosaic Records has issued a 7-CD box which includes over 5 hours of unissued recordings by this outstanding ensemble. In this newly revised Historical Essay, Thomas Cunniffe explores the musical legacy of Desmond's Canadian Quartet.
  • Sheila Jordan: The Bass/Voice Duets
    Sheila Jordan once said, I think I may have been a bass player in a previous life. My favorite way to sing is with the bass. Jordan's duo recordings with bass accompaniment have been some of her finest work. This month, Jordan's biographer Ellen Johnson, offers the first part of a two-part Historical Essay on these seminal recordings.
  • Shelly Manne and His Men featuring Joe Gordon and Richie Kamuca
    One of the most beloved recorded collections in jazz history features extended live performances performed by a band with no major stars except its leader. In this Historical Essay, Thomas Cunniffe reviews the recordings of Shelly Manne and His Men featuring Joe Gordon and Richie Kamuca, including the magical albums recorded over three nights at San Francisco's Black Hawk.
  • The 1968 Bill Evans Trio with Eddie Gomez & Jack DeJohnette
    For about 6 months in the middle of 1968, pianist Bill Evans led a remarkable trio featuring bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Up until now, the only recordings that existed of this group were the Grammy-winning LP Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival and a handful of bootleg recordings. In this Historical Essay, Thomas Cunniffe discusses the group's recordings (including a newly released--and previously unknown studio session) as well as a rare TV broadcast.
  • The Art Farmer Quartet featuring Jim Hall
    While they were only together for a little over a year, the Art Farmer Quartet with Jim Hall created a remarkable legacy of music. In this extended historical essay, Thomas Cunniffe explores the audio and video recordings of this remarkable group.
  • The Earliest Recordings of “Body and Soul”
    Before it was interpolated into the Broadway revue, Three's A Crowd, Johnny Green's Body and Soul had been a hit in England. As the show went through tryouts, the lyrics of the song underwent a complete rewrite before its Broadway premiere. In this interactive Historical Essay, Thomas Cunniffe examines 17 recordings of B&S recorded between February and October 1930.
  • The Sound of Jazz: An Interactive Essay
    Long considered the greatest presentation of jazz on television, Robert Herridge's "The Sound of Jazz" succeeded by just letting the musicians be themselves, and allowing them to develop their music on their own terms. This newly revised interactive essay includes the complete show and a running commentary by Thomas Cunniffe.
  • Tommy Flanagan’s Composer Tributes
    Between 1975 and 1993, pianist Tommy Flanagan recorded six tribute albums featuring, in turn, the music of Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn, Bud Powell, Harold Arlen, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Thad Jones. Thomas Cunniffe explores these albums in this month's Historical Essay.