Rhapsodies in Black

by

This is the semen of 20th century American popular music. Certainly cornet and trumpet player Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, made from 1925-27, are seen as the direct foundation of jazz (and by extension blues, rock and pop) as the art of the virtuoso improviser. Sure there were others who played jazz before Armstrong, and there were other improvisers of note. But Armstrong was the first great virtuoso.

That accomplishment alone would have sealed his spot in jazz history, but there is so much more. Not only did he blow better, but his singing set the stage for next-generation songbirds such as Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby, and scat singer Ella Fitzgerald. The arrangements show a diversity of dynamics that modern-day players would do well to learn from. Rather than playing the melody and following with ad nauseam choruses of solos, Armstrong breaks the band down to duets, trios, etc. to display a wide range of approaches.

This collection has all of that, plus a great booklet chock-full of photos, commentaries on the four discs in the set, an assemblage of the main players, personal reflections and essays from producer Phil Scrap, George Avakian and Robert G. O’Meally. Even if you already have the records, the book makes this set worth getting.

Rhapsodies in Black is a great collection in its own right, with four discs of cuts from a bunch of early century artists, connected to today with readings of some of the era’s literature by such contemporary bright lights as Alfre Woodard, Ice-T, Darius Rucker, Coolio, Angela Bassett and Quincy Jones.

This set defines the Harlem Renaissance as the period from 1915 to 1935, and while one may quibble over the dates, no one disputes the importance of the time period to the African-American intellectual canon and, by extension, to the world.

While Louis Armstrong (found here as a leader and as sideman with Fletcher Henderson and Clarence Williams) may have been the razor-sharp cutting edge of the early era, here one finds the milieu from which he was spawned. James P. Johnson, Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, Lonnie Johnson, Bessie Smith and even Detroit’s McKinney’s Cotton Pickers all appear. Recitations from Langston Hughes, Helene Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps and others are interspersed.

What makes this collection great (though the booklet gives short shrift to painters of the period when discussing the overall impact of the Harlem Renaissance) is that it compiles tidbits that one has seen or heard of here and there into one easy-to-find package. For instance, many people may have heard of Bert Williams, considered by many the greatest comedian ever, but here is an actual recording of him doing a dramatic reading.

Check out other box sets full of music and spoken-word greatness which are stocking the shelves this season.

comment