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SAVOY 685; JANUARY, 1949

 
 

 

The trade paper ads for new records being released in January 1949 featured plenty of well-established artists on major record labels featuring the type of sedate music that had been so prevalent throughout the first nine years of the decade.

The safe, familiar names of Harry James, Sammy Kaye, Blue Barron, Vaughn Monroe, Paul Weston’s Orchestra and Guy Lombardo were being pushed by the major labels, the same as they had been the year before and the year before that.

There was no reason to think anything would ever change… Benny Goodman was riding high on the charts as were Kay Kyser, Art Lund and other established bandleaders whose music was polished and polite. It was an era of good taste all around. A reflection of the genteel optimism of the country and the relaxed manners of those who felt as if they’d made it up the ladder of success and were now entitled to take it easy.

Though this music was well-played and adhered to the highest possible standards none of it was really exciting, or meant to be for that matter. One review touting the new Stan Kenton record says it “makes for fairly pleasant listening”… hardly the kind of praise that would have anyone beating a path to the record store to snatch it up.

No matter how you looked at it pop music and mainstream jazz had settled into middle age, comfortable in their success and at peace with their deficiencies… thinning hair, a spreading waistline and a lack of energy and enthusiasm for most activities. They were respectable bread-winners in the music neighborhood, their houses were well-maintained and they all drove nice cars and went to work each morning in their suits and ties, shoes shined and carrying a briefcase and came home at the end of the day looking much the same, no stress or strain evident on their faces… a kiss for the wife and a smile for the kids as they headed inside for a drink before dinner.

It was music for the suburbs where all of the streets looked the same.

But around the corner, down the block and across the tracks a new kind of music was taking hold and moving ever closer to those quiet neighborhoods with their freshly mowed lawns and their dainty flower beds of gardenias and rose bushes.

This music was played by those who were far younger and more energetic, those who appeared to outsiders to be reckless in their behavior and impatient, even demanding, about their desires.

They didn’t look the same, they didn’t act the same and for damn sure they didn’t sound the same.
 

 

The Big Bet
If you were laying odds on the chances that this new “underground” fad of rock ‘n’ roll would ever be able to compete with, let alone overtake, the big band derived musical monolith that dominated radio and bandstands across America, you would probably not even give them a proverbial “puncher’s chance”.

The possibility that this incoherent music would be the most popular style on the planet a decade from now was too far-fetched to even be considered a long-shot. This was a style that adhered to almost none of the accepted protocols of any brand of mainstream music since the beginning of time… or at least that which had been recorded commercially since the turn of the century.

Jazz was its closest antecedent and while it’s true that in the 1920’s there was a similar moral outrage over its wild rhythms and the lack of morals it fostered in listeners the music itself was more easily tamed than this crazy rock ‘n’ roll could ever be. It may have been even more structurally adventurous and melodically inventive than rock ever would be and for its time was as rhythmically challenging as anything yet heard, but at least it seemed grounded in some understandable musical tenants.

…Or so people had come to believe in later years when the furor died down and the industry learned how to market more acceptable replications of it for the masses who wouldn’t have been caught dead in a Prohibition era speakeasy doing the Charleston.

Rock ‘n’ roll on the other hand seemed at times to follow no musical or cultural rules of decorum. The vocalists screamed or bellowed the mostly unintelligible lyrics and even sang with wanton lust in their voices on the more suggestive songs. Meanwhile these rock instrumentals that were gaining in popularity might be even more suggestive and unmusical with their increasingly brazen honking and squealing interludes that seem to suggest, if not outright depict aurally, acts which are best left behind closed doors.

Surely THIS music, if you can call it that, can’t unseat Benny Goodman or make good, decent Americans no longer want to “swing and sway with Sammy Kaye”.

Could it?
 


 

Jump Children
The answer is obvious of course as proven when the other side of this record, The Deacon’s Hop, soon topped the R&B Charts bringing an even more unhinged sound to the eager ears of the listening audience.

Big Jay McNeely, its 21 year old creator, quickly became the most influential live performer of his generation, a flamboyant showman whose stage shows were legendary for their unbridled passion, groundbreaking effects and the wildly ecstatic reactions his antics got from the crowd.

But at a glance it’d be easy to underestimate all of this. Sure, anything outrageous can and will draw momentary attention, if only for the sheer chutzpah involved in performing it. Once the furor died down however where could he, or anyone inclined to follow his lead, possibly take this brand of organized mayhem? If you’ve already blown up the speakers with your last explosive performance, what was left to do short of vaporizing the ashes?

So the mainstream, if they even admitted to noticing the clamor coming from the other part of town, probably rolled their eyes and shook their heads and went back to their tuna casserole and sweet clarinets playing supper club music and waited for the smoke from the remaining sparks this music created to fizzle out for good. Sooner or later the kids listening to that racket would grow up and come to their senses and since it was unlikely that McNeely had another trick up his sleeve the audience would grow weary of the noisy repetition of it all and look elsewhere for more lasting musical sustenance.

McNeely for his part seemed not to be concerned. This is a common trait of twenty-one year olds – confidence bordering on cockiness – and so he merely doubled down on the bet he placed on himself to beat those impossibly long odds with Artie’s Jump, another song which cashed in the melodicism and used the profits to invest heavily in the raunchy rhythms that had worked so well for him on stage at the Barrelhouse Club before he’d ever stepped foot in a studio.
 

She Bop
You’d think given Savoy’s history with such things that any instrumental record with somebody’s name in the title was a blatant attempt at public bribery, finding some powerful disc jockey to cozy up to by naming the record after him in hopes he’d play it as his theme song each night on the air.

But Artie’s Jump is not one of those cases and Artie is not even a man, let alone a man who works in radio, retail or even one who sweeps out the studio at night.

Artie is a she and according to Big Jay himself she was a local girl in his Los Angeles neighborhood whom he was taken with. We don’t know if his shameless ploy worked any better than when Herman Lubinsky tried wooing some dee-jay with the same tactics but at least in this case McNeely was the one who got to make the decision rather than having its title left in the hands of somebody else.

Of course showing he still didn’t have complete control over such things, once the top side hit and Savoy lost McNeely to a rival company their later pressings had Big Jay’s name altered to capitalize on the hit even more. Ahh, the good ol’ days that everyone speaks glowingly about!

Going into this side of the record we know the song is going to be unable to compete with the shocking nature of The Deacon’s Hop unless McNeely lights himself on fire while playing and so we’re liable to view any components it shares with the top-side more cynically than we might if this was on a single with a moody ballad instead.

Sure enough after an opening salvo which comes across as merely a rudimentary jazz riff roughened up a little to set it apart, they waste no time before delving into the expected fireworks without much of a build-up, almost as if he was running short on ideas and went right to his bread and butter. Considering this was the final song out of four cut on that day, and the eighth in the span of a month since signing his first contract, you could hardly blame him for merely going through the motions with something predictable.

The first part of his initial solo is fairly good, stretching out by climbing up and then sliding down the scales, giving the song some genuine forward momentum. But after he wears that trick out he merely starts to improvise, almost hoping these maneuvers will give him time to think of something more captivating for the second half.

Where he’s really hurt is by the temporary loss of brother Bob McNeely on baritone, someone who could read Jay’s moves like a book and answer him intuitively no matter which direction he headed. Jay tries to compensate for his absence by dropping into his lowest register on tenor to cap a few lines and it helps somewhat but can’t fully replace Bob’s more authoritative role.
 

An Average Night At The Club
We know full well as it enters the second half that we’re not really hearing a proper record as much as we’re simply witnessing a live performance captured on tape. But whatever the song lacks as a composition, that is if it were even written out in advance, which may be doubtful, McNeely still is able to compensate for the structural flaws inherent in such an improvised performance by the energy he and the band give off.

That’s hardly a formula for long term success when it comes to issuing records but their enthusiasm on Artie’s Jump at least salvages what was a undercooked idea to begin with.

For an A-side this might not suffice, after all we want something our minds can more easily digest and return to in our memory and have it play out without need for a cheat sheet. But as a B-side we can mostly overlook its conceptual shortcomings and slightly messy arrangement to allow ourselves to get caught up in the sounds of your average night at a club on the other side of town… on OUR side of town that is… and be glad that this music is consistently beginning to see the light of day in the commercial realm.

Though it may have only risen to the level of average for what rock instrumentals were shaping up to be in 1949 the more important and telling fact about this was how the growing popularity of this kind of cacophonous noise was increasingly becoming “normal” in so many people’s eyes.

No, it was definitely not normal for the polite and modest tastes of the mainstream listeners or the artists who had ruled the roost for the past two decades, but for the generation coming of age on the outskirts of society whose tastes would soon begin to infiltrate the middle-class, it was only a matter of time before this new frontier of sound was indeed viewed as average by everybody and in the process for it seem ever more normal by the day.

That alone is worth plenty.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Big Jay McNeely for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)