Review of ‘Eddie Condon & Bud Freeman: Complete Commodore & Decca Sessions’
Bud Freeman playing tenor saxophone and Eddie Condon on guitar.Photo: Getty Images (2)
May 20, 2015 5:04 p.m. ET
Jazz guitarist Eddie Condon and saxophonist Bud Freeman have been all but forgotten today, victims of jazz’s shifting sands and evolving generational tastes. But in the years just before World War II and up through the early 1970s—when many jazz fans clung to the syncopated style of an earlier era—Condon and Freeman were masters of a hot, bouncy form forged in Chicago in the late 1920s.
Back then, Chicago’s emergence as a jazz capital owed much to Louis Armstrong’s presence in the city starting in 1922 as a performer and after as a recording star. Touring black bands from New Orleans also stoked demand for the electrifying new music at Chicago hotels, summer resorts and mob-run clubs, which during Prohibition increasingly relied on jazz to attract patrons and keep them drinking. By the mid-1920s, white jazz bands and musicians like the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer helped meet the demand.
These artists and others quickly became role models for a new wave of young Chicago-area musicians, known as the Austin High Gang, named for the high school some had attended. Among them were Condon, who hadn’t studied at Austin High, and Freeman, who did. They made their first record together in 1927 and then moved to New York the following year, where they spent the Depression playing and performing. Between 1938 and 1950, their recordings for two labels helped Chicago jazz survive and thrive during the swing and bebop eras. These recordings can now be found on a new 8-CD boxed set, “Eddie Condon & Bud Freeman: Complete Commodore & Decca Sessions” (Mosaic).
The box features 199 masters and alternate takes that have been gloriously restored by Andreas Meyer. Through these warm and clear recordings, the casual listener can hear how Chicago jazz represented a distinct shift from the earlier New Orleans sound, laying down a faster, more aggressive rhythmic tempo as the string bass and guitar replaced the tuba and banjo, with intermittent solos by all musicians going off like firecrackers rather than unified playing by the ensemble.
Joining Condon and Freeman on the box’s recordings are a wealth of Chicago jazz giants, among them cornetists Bobby Hackett and Max Kaminsky, clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, trombonists Miff Mole, Brad Gowans and Jack Teagarden, and drummers George Wettling and Dave Tough. All are part of the box’s back story—Chicago jazz’s strategic move to New York, the center of radio and recording at the time. The migration is significant because Condon and Freeman, through their recordings and live appearances there, managed to generate fresh interest in the style despite radical changes in jazz and tastes over the 12-year period.
Unfortunately, Chicago jazz is largely overlooked today by most jazz fans, who are more familiar with bebop of the 1940s, hard bop of the ’50s and fusion of the ’70s. As a result, much of the music on this set will require a shift in mindset to the aesthetic values of the prewar era. In the 1920s and early ’30s, jazz solos came in explosive bursts atop the choreographed calamity of all instruments playing at once. During these years, Chicago jazz evolved from a boom-time drinking partner to music that kept spirits high during economic hard times.
The listener also will have to work hard to hear Condon. In the years before guitars were electrified, the acoustic jazz instrument had a distinctly supportive, time-keeping role. Along with the piano, bass and drums, the guitar pounded out the rhythm. With its steady chink-chink-chink, the rhythm guitar also provided texture—filling in the space between the thud of the bass and tinkle of the piano. Hence, there are no Condon solos here, just the rock-solid strum of his four-string Gibson.
Freeman, by contrast, is featured prominently throughout. His warm, slippery playing style and husky tone helped reposition the tenor saxophone as a solo jazz instrument in the early 1930s, starting with “The Eel” in 1933. In this new box, his style matures splendidly, and he appears in a variety of settings, including trios.
Condon and Freeman are together on many of the tracks, except from 1942 through 1945, when Freeman was in the Army and recorded government V-Discs. The box offers quite a few surprises. There are delightful vocal sides, including several by Teagarden (among them “It’s Tulip Time in Holland” and “My Melancholy Baby), Bing Crosby (“Personality” and “After You’ve Gone”) and Lee Wiley (“The Man I Love”). Pianist James P. Johnson is on “Just You, Just Me” in 1946, and all tracks feature stellar clarinetists, including Russell, Peanuts Hucko, Joe Dixon and Edmond Hall.
Most of all, this is a box bursting with excitement and optimism. There are up-tempo workouts on “California, Here I Come,” “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” “Friar’s Point Shuffle,” “Sensation,” “Oh Sister Ain’t That Hot” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” Track after track features stomping syncopation and the sound of musicians wailing in solo. Also valuable for those with little knowledge of Chicago jazz are the 31 pages of authoritative liner notes by author and historian Dan Morgenstern, who writes artfully about the style and its migration east.
Interestingly, the relocation of Chicago jazz to New York in 1938 didn’t ignite a wholesale return to the past. Instead, the music became a roots movement, like classic rock today, providing nostalgic comfort to postwar fans put off by the superficiality of swing and braggadocio of bop. What remains are recordings of enormous energy and musicianship.
Mr. Myers, a frequent contributor to the Journal, writes daily about the arts and music at JazzWax.com.