Sometimes a general idea for a musical post rattles around in my head for quite awhile before I figure out what kind of form it should take. This one, for instance.
Blue Lou is an old thing that may be one of the most durable and recognizable instrumental jazz pieces from the last century. It is one of those pieces that everyone who knows classic jazz will know upon hearing it, if from the tune if not from the title. It will never show up on any list of the 20 most-performed pieces of all time, and will never be the first thing anyone thinks of in a jam session or for a recording date. But just as with Jell-O (which also comes in blue), there has always been room for Blue Lou.
It is also unusual in that the piece has been recorded by almost everyone from the era we concentrate on here, yet is not really identified with any one of them. Some old songs conjure thoughts of a performer who made it most famous. Nobody thinks of “One O’Clock Jump” without thinking of Count Basie or of “Route 66” without Nat King Cole coming to mind. Or maybe we think of a composer – like with “I Got Rhythm” (George Gershwin) or “Ain’t Misbehavin'” (by our recent subject, Fats Waller). But Blue Lou is one of those things that has found a home in the book (or the head) of almost every well known group of jazz players, but has never really been a cornerstone for any of them.
When I first stumbled across this 1933 record by Benny Carter – the very first known recorded version – I knew that it would anchor a piece here. But what would be my angle? Really, this is one that could go a dozen different ways.
The record itself is notable as one of the earliest of the classic swing standards. Benny Carter may be the most remarkable musician of his era that few today have ever heard of. Carter was a self-taught musical giant who was writing for bands, film and television for decades and who was still performing until just a few years before his 2003 death at the age of 95. But he did not write Blue Lou.
Carter’s arrangement of Edgar Sampson’s tune was highly advanced for its time, with a structure and a contrasting use of brass and reed sections that would be the norm until the swing era gave way to BeBop in the mid 40’s. The first parts of the record sound a little dated, between the languid saxophones and the muted trumpet that can’t quite muster a swing rhythm. But then come the trombone solo (almost certainly the great J.C. Higgenbotham), the piano of Teddy Wilson and Benny Carter’s alto sax which get things into a groove. When it finishes off with some double-time acrobatics by the sax section, it becomes a record I can listen to over and over. (And have).
Carter was proficient on trumpet but was among the greatest to play the alto sax, and is generally considered on a par with Duke Ellington’s great alto man Johnny Hodges. And unlike so many jazz players who lived hard but short lives, Carter was one of the very few who recorded over eight decades. Also, Carter was at least as well known for his skills at writing and arranging – in films like “Stormy Weather”, multiple television episodes and later for a diverse lot of singers from Ray Charles to Peggy Lee.
Another idea for a theme would be the song’s writer, Edgar Sampson. He is also known for other durable swing numbers from the 30’s like “Stompin’ At The Savoy” or “Don’t Be That Way”.
It finally occurred to me that the real reason I wanted to write about Blue Lou was the song itself, and how it shows up in an almost infinite number of recordings by more artists over more years and with more variations than I would even attempt to describe. And beyond its under-the-radar ubiquity over the decades, it remains recognizable for its unique chord pattern that keeps switching between minor and major keys, while at the same time providing a platform for the inventiveness of later arrangements and performers who have added to it without taking away from its basic goodness.
Like this 1944 record made by the great pianist Eddie Heywood with his band. There are probably videos with better sound quality but I still love watching a 78 rpm disc being played, and this one gives you the full audio and visual experience.
Heywood’s career was broken into multiple parts, punctuated by serious illnesses. But when he was at the bench he always made highly listenable music.
Or this one made a dozen years later (1956) by Art Tatum. What Tatum lacked in eyesight, he made up for by some of the fastest, most limber fingers ever. Really, all of these selections come from folks who deserve their own day in the sun here, but for today, let’s allow Blue Lou to bring them all together for an impromptu concert that can be as brief or as long as you want it to be. We don’t often do a modular “build-it-yourself” experience for a musical blog post, but you get one today, with all kinds of directions you can go.
You can expand this experience of notable piano treatments to include a very early example of the (Nat) King Cole Trio (1939). This was maybe three years before Cole became famous after his tune “Straighten Up and Fly Right” took over jukeboxes of the day. You can contrast Cole’s style with a much later treatment by George Shearing (1961).
Or if you like a “Battle of the Bands” format you can almost take your pick among other efforts that came soon after Carter’s.
The piece’s composer Edgar Sampson is responsible for the arrangement used by the next band to record Blue Lou – the great early swing band of Chick Webb (1934), who regularly ruled at New York’s Savoy ballroom and who would be the first to hire a young Ella Fitzgerald a year or two later. Chick can pair off against another giant of the era, Fletcher Henderson (1936). Henderson was the guy whose arranging talents gave Benny Goodman a a big kick-start in 1934-35 and allowed him to become billed as The King of Swing. Both of these records took the piece at a faster tempo than Carter used.
Benny Goodman was not the only royalty on the bandstand. You can can expand the time period for a match between the Count and the Duke. Try Count Basie’s 1944 effort which came late in the era before he rebooted with a new style in 1950. In the other corner is Duke Ellington’s 1947 version which matched a well-written arrangement with that lush Ellington sound. I do love me a big, hearty, loud band from the 40’s and either of these will scratch that itch every time.
We could even add the (much more commercial) 1939 version that was the product of the very first recording of All-Stars according to balloting of readers by Metronome magazine. This group included several we have already featured here, like Harry James, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Bunny Berrigan. 1939 was, incidentally, the only year Metronome failed to include any black players in the All-Star roster – Benny Carter would be included in 1940. You can pair that selection with the much cooler, west-coast-style 1953 version by Woody Herman’s Third Herd. Woody Herman was the subject of my very first post here on a musical topic, and is someone who deserves another look.
Then there are the examples that were performed by all manner of groups. For instance, there is this 1947 cut by tenor sax man Wardell Gray with a young Errol Garner on the piano. Gray was one of many who straddled swing and bebop, but whose career was cut short by a likely drug overdose in 1955. There is also the 1949 version of the Benny Goodman sextet in its last really creative period, which also features Wardell Gray. Other examples include those of vibraphone player Red Norvo (1954), or the tenor saxophone/Hammond organ combo of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Shirley Scott (1958) You may not have expected it, but there was even a vocal treatment from the early 50’s by the inimitable Ella Fitzgerald.
And howsabout a guitar comparison: You can start with the great European combination of Django Reinhardt & Stephane Grappelli (1947), who also called themselves The Hot Club of France. Those guys proved that a toe tapper could be great jazz at the same time. Then compare to a fun modern counterpart from the 2000’s by Andy Reiss, Ranger Doug and bassist Bobby Durham. These guys are new to me, but any friend of Blue Lou is a friend of mine.
Anyone with my tendency for obsessing can dive much farther down Blue Lou’s almost endless rabbit hole. This listing at Secondhand Songs is surely only a start, or you can use my method of scrolling through the countless choices offered by the Tube of You or any other of your favorite source for classic music. The song continues to be the occasional choice of modern players who stand on the big shoulders of earlier musicians who had their crack at the tune. Really, I imagine that the list of significant performers who have not played Blue Lou at some period in a career is shorter than the list of those who have.
Some might ask “What’s the point here?” Questions are always encouraged, but does there always have to be a point? Blue Lou was an unsung classic when it was first recorded by Benny Carter almost ninety years ago, and it has become anything but unsung in the many decades of great jazz since. (Literally sung in Ella Fitzgerald’s case.) Let’s just go with this: Blue Lou has long been a reliable workhorse of a vintage jazz number that deserves far more than three lines in Wikipedia. Generations of teachers demonstrated “round” vowel sounds by asking “How now, brown cow?” We could also say that generations of jazz players have asked “Who Knew Blue Lou?” The answer, of course, is almost everyone.