Today In Jazz

Happy Birthday Bessie Smith!

April 15

Singer Bessie Smith is born in Chattanooga, TN, in 1894. Smith was known as the “Empress of the Blues,” and wore her regality with a swagger of a newly liberated woman. She started her career under the tutelage of another legendary blues singer, Ma Rainey in the years before World War I. However, it wasn’t long before Smith, full of passionate intensity and possessed of a thunderous delivery, eclipsed her and went out on her own, playing vaudeville circuits. Her timing was perfect. In 1920, singer Mamie Smith (no relation to Bessie Smith, Al Smith, Smith & Dale or the Smith Brothers) made a record titled “Crazy Blues” that, to everyone’s surprise, sold a million copies and ignited a craze for the blues across the entertainment industry. Meanwhile,  Bessie was building up a huge following. On February 16, 1923, she recorded singer Alberta Hunter’s “Down Hearted Blues,” for Columbia, accompanied by Clarence Williams on piano. Bessie’s version of “Down Hearted Blues” sold more than 750,000 copies in six months, and made her a star. She made over 150 sides in her heyday: 1923 to 1930. Her sidemen were nonpareil: Louis Armstrong, pianists Fletcher Henderson and James P. Johnson, clarinetists Benny Goodman and Buster Bailey, guitarist Eddie Lang and saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Don Redman. The Depression, which almost destroyed the record industry, and changing public taste led to a decline in Smith’s career. She made her last record in 1933, a short time before the recording debut of Billie Holiday, who always claimed Smith as a major influence. (Both recordings were for the Columbia label and Benny Goodman played on both.) Smith died of injuries she suffered in an automobile accident in 1936. Listen to one of her signature numbers, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out:”

Bassist Richard Davis is born in Chicago, IL in 1930. Davis is a prime example of why bassists don’t get enough love. Over a career that has lasted 60 years, he has played with saxophonist Dexter Gordon, pianist Ahmad Jamal and that other Davis, Miles. He has accompanied singers such as Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan, and appeared on landmark recordings in both jazz (Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch) and pop (Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks). Davis has been under the batons of Igor Stravinsky, Leopold Stokowski and Leonard Bernstein. Davis is acknowledged as a consummate technician who excels at every aspect of the bass. In 1993, he created a foundation for young bassists. Since that time, he has spent more time teaching than playing. Although Davis has made many records as a sideman, he’s done less than a handful as a leader. Listen to a track “The Rabbi,” from one of them, the 1971 release The Philosophy of the Spiritual, here:

Trumpeter Miles Davis’s Quintet–with tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb– records In Person: Saturday Night At the Blackhawk, 1961. Listen to Frank Loesser’s “If I Were a Bell,” here: