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GOTHAM 198; SEPTEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

From time to time in rock history there are titles that come along which perfectly encapsulate a movement or an idea of that period.

This is one of those times.

What’s unusual though is the song itself is not a rock composition at all but rather a jazz standard nearly a decade old by this point making it highly unlikely that the title was indicative of anything current. Furthermore it’s played here by an artist who’d forsaken that music for rock ‘n’ roll, a form of treachery in some people’s eyes, and apparently not content with that betrayal this jazz refugee is making it worse by completely perverting this highly acclaimed song for his new uncouth audience.

No, things sure ain’t what they used to be at all.
 

 

Generational Divide
There are few more enduring truisms of life than the need of the offspring to vanquish the one who sired them.

In psychology this is the Oedipus complex, wherein male children view their fathers as a rival for their mother’s affections. It generally occurs between three and six years of age and gradually lessens once the boy starts to identify with his father and increasingly takes on his characteristics. Yet as you get older you still feel the need to step out of his shadow, something which any kid who ever played his old man at basketball in the driveway as a teenager knows can only be accomplished by beating him. In effect, taking his place as the dominant figure in the family hierarchy.

There’s also the concurrent need to be seen by others as independent from your parents, not simply viewed as their offspring, something that typically manifests itself in challenging the belief system of your parents as a way to distance yourself from them as a teenager and young adult.

Ivan Turegnev wrote about way back in 1862 in the acclaimed Russian novel Fathers And Sons, which examines the generational divide that existed even then, showing that no matter the era and no matter which society you’re talking about this has always been a universal condition of humanity.

 

 

Close to a hundred years later it wouldn’t be nihilism that was the means with which to express your independence as was the case in Russian society way back in the mid 19th Century, but rather it’d be your choice in music.

From the 1920’s through the mid-1940’s jazz was the music which best exemplified the growing generational split, as the older generation decried the music as vulgar and obscene, even savage… you don’t have to strain to see the racial implications in this criticism of course, but embedded in that was the generational backlash against the youth of the 1920’s who were actively forsaking the musical and cultural standards upheld by their elders.

You can’t expect the old folks to go down without a fight, can you?

The same was true when rock ‘n’ roll took the mantle from jazz twenty-five years down the road, long after the wild kids of the 1920’s had become the adults of the 1930’s and 40’s. During that time jazz had become somewhat sterilized as with money to be made record companies and bandleaders sought to make it more acceptable by increasingly adding a European melodic sensibility into the work to increase its appeal to those who weren’t flappers flaunting convention in the Roaring Twenties. It became more sophisticated, more restrained, more dignified and more popular… until inevitably it crested as a cultural identifier and subsequently began to grow LESS popular.

This wasn’t because it ceased to be played well or became so neutered that it turned into something unrecognizable from what preceded it, but rather that the black community of the late 1940’s were no longer seeing in jazz the opportunity to break away, to take on an identity of their own, separate from that which had been largely co-opted by others over the years.

So they turned to rock ‘n’ roll. The ungrateful bastard child of jazz.
 

Fathers And Sons
The funny thing about these splits is while many of the off-spring seek to wipe out their ancestors to assert their dominance, eventually a good many of them look to reconcile.

One who didn’t take long to come back into the fold, that is if he ever left it, even within the confines of his own household, was Mercer Ellington, the only son of Duke Ellington, one of the greatest bandleaders in the history of jazz… or any type of music for that matter.

Mercer was barely out of his teens himself when he began writing music for his father and in 1941 he contributed Things Ain’t What They Used To Be, a song that while it had lyrics (written by Ted Pearson) was mostly done as an instrumental and would go on to be one of the Duke’s most popular songs in his long career.

But as originally conceived the song was typical of its time – a slow, gently swaying tune that had a hazy sort of feel. Melodically interesting, expertly played, but polite and proper. Over the next few years, both playing it on stage and recording it multiple times, they’d increase the tempo somewhat thereby giving more room for a succession of solos from each horn in the group but it always maintained its sense of decorum that was indicative of an early 1940’s mindset.

By 1949 there was a far different musical mindset that existed in black music but you have to assume that Gotham Records was pleased when they learned their newest signee Tiny Grimes was cutting this at his first session for the label because it indicated he might be willing to head back to the more respectable field of jazz from whence he came. Who knows, they may have even encouraged him to do so.

It’s a strange thing to have to keep reiterating because it goes against the usual decree that sales drive what gets made and by this point rock was selling more, but old habits are hard to break when they involve cultural standards and so jazz was able to offset their declining sales with the respectability they’d cultivated, meaning Gotham Records, like so many others, were bound to be swayed by the chance to establish themselves as a “serious” label by releasing quality jazz performances.

In Tiny Grimes they now had someone who could do both. He had proven his chops as a rock artist with Atlantic – and the top side of this very single, the blistering Drivin’ & Jivin’, but he’d also built quite a reputation in jazz earlier in the decade and so if anyone was familiar with the requirements for Ellington’s material surely it’d be Grimes.

Whether or not Gotham was hoping or expecting that Grimes would conform to a jazz mindset when delivering this isn’t known, but if they knew anything at all about Tiny Grimes they couldn’t have been surprised that he was going to do no such thing.
 


 

The Dawn Of A Day Of Glory
Because it’s hard if not downright impossible not to consider the source of this song when evaluating it’s radical update for a new audience maybe it’s best to put it this way: Things Ain’t What They Used To Be might as well be two photographs of the same child 8 years apart.

In the first picture the boy is eight years old, flanked on either side by his parents. It appears that they’re dressed for Easter services at church or something as the old folks have on their Sunday best while the child in his shined shoes and tie seems blissfully unaware of how out of place this outfit looks on him. He’s dutifully wearing a smile along with the miniaturized suit that has his parents beaming with pride at how respectable their little boy appears.

In this second photo the kid is 16 and is wearing the requisite scowl that confirms his age. His hair styled the way he wants it to be, not the way his parents would approve, which of course is why he’s wearing it that way to begin with. His wild clothes have his parents cringing in the moments before the picture is snapped, during which they gamely flash grim smiles to try and fool people into thinking they’re happy with how this is going to turn out. Needless to say they won’t be putting it in a prominent place in the family album.

Those descriptions define the differences in the two approaches to the same song. The jazz rendition is the parental ideal, the rock take on it is essentially what happens when that child becomes too big to tell what to do any longer.

As such a couple of things capture your attention right away with Grimes’s thoroughly updated rock record, starting with the fact that a full minute is cut from the jazz versions recorded by Ellington in the studio years earlier, one indication of how rock ‘n’ roll valued tight arrangements while keeping the focus on an unrelenting driving beat… which is the second thing that catches your ear.

The song has acquired a distinct muscularity with Sonny Payne’s drums kicking things off with a flourish following Grimes’ stinging intro on guitar. Though he’d soften a bit during the first section when riding the cymbals behind Grimes’s lead, Payne comes storming back during the rest of it, alternately stomping out a backbeat when the others are taking the spotlight and playing speaker rattling fills during the breaks.

The rock version of Things Ain’t What They Used To Be stomps rather than floats like its jazz predecessor and Grimes uses this heavier frame to support the twin leads of his own guitar and Red Prysock’s tenor sax which give it a far more aggressive vibe than anything the Duke envisioned.

As usual Grimes has no reservations about handing over the reins to Prysock. Not only does Red carry the initial stuttering riff that sets the torrid pace, but then as that slows you’d think Grimes would jump right back into the spotlight but instead Prysock keeps going, slow and sultry at first before ramping up the intensity as he unleashes a vicious assault on the senses with his horn.

When Tiny does get his say again a full minute has already gone by and while his guitar is dishing out razor sharp licks now it’s merely acting as a way to transition from sax to George Kelly’s piano which takes the next hunk of record for itself,a two-fisted barrelhouse run that further helps to keep this well removed from its jazz origins.

When Grimes finally gets some extended work in, first a brief scintillating solo and later a more involved piece, his guitar is giving off a radioactive glow. The drums and piano are in lockstep with one another as Tiny boogies his way through the openings and when all of the instruments come roaring back for the finale each one is hammering the point home with authority.

The jazz parents have heard enough and turning away in shame from the camera they slip back in the house, pull the blinds down and lock the doors, too embarrassed by their kids outrageous behavior to let themselves be seen by the neighbors.
 

No Ignoring That Rosy Promise
But that’s what has to happen for each generation – whether musical or cultural – to move on to adulthood. There has to be some sort of struggle… between the two parties involved, yes, but also within the one whose doing the breaking away.

Grimes epitomizes this best of all. He was being raised right by his jazz parents and he could’ve done just fine following in their footsteps. Instead he felt the need to not be seen merely as the spitting image of those who came before him and wanted to be seen as somebody entirely new and unique.

That’s generational rebellion in a nutshell and when there’s a clean break between the two eras and styles – like has happened with jazz and rock – then the younger life form grows in strength exponentially.

Not surprisingly that’s exactly what happened with rock ‘n’ roll. They broke away so fast, so completely from all that preceded it that there was no chance for jazz, or any other style, to merely bring it into the fold. Rock was now completely independent, left to stand or fall on its own, and by the sounds of records like these they were going to be just fine. After all, for life or art to move forward things can’t always stay the way they used to be.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Tiny Grimes for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)