Monday, 12 August 2013

11. Eddie Condon

Our next stop is another Eddie, and another guitarist. Condon, born in 1905, started out on banjo, but as the 20s progressed moved to guitar. It’s sometimes said that he was an unexceptional musician, but that’s rather unfair. He was a skilled accompanist, and since that was the role he sought to excel in, rather than as a soloist, then he achieved his ambitions. But he was more than that; he was also a charismatic theorist of jazz. He had a strong sense of what authentic jazz should be about, and because he had the organisational skill, the way with words, and the magnetic personality, for many in Chicago, and later New York, his version of authenticity became writ.

 For Condon real jazz was improvised, it was played by small groups, and it sounded a lot like his idols, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. Although he was a devotee of the ODJB and King Oliver, the type of jazz he is associated with is less the ensemble polyphony of New Orleans, and more the new Chicago style that supported soloists.

The next inaccuracy that history has inflicted on Condon is that he was the leader of a school of white musicians. It’s unfair, because Condon  would not have seen himself as such. He organised gigs, recording sessions and informal jams for musicians. To him, the race of the musician was not the issue, but whether they could play.

Even in the North, mixed race bands were a sensitive issue at the time, with civil society disapproving of the races mixing socially, and with even Northern musicians' unions being segregated. But Condon cared about jazz, and jazz was made by both black and white musicians. This got him into trouble, especially when he opened his own club, and the (supposedly unsegregated) local union tried to enforce de facto differential pay for black and white musicians. The point is made by Ingrid Monson (2007)  in "Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa" that the Jim Crow authorities disapproved more strenuously if white and black musicians performed together in black venues than if they performed together in white venues, but the fact remains that Condon was one of many early jazz performers who ignored Jim Crow in order to make good music.

The third inaccuracy that history has in store for Condon (although partly his fault for calling his band the Chicagoans), is to forever associate his name with Chicago. While he first found fame in that city, he was actually from a small town in Indiana.

Chicago School
 However, we will forever associate his name with the Chicago school of white musicians because it was he who would best articulate their ethic. He is their guru-in-chief.

 His way with words has meant his lines are often repeated with relish. For example, his review of one musician he played with (Ted Lewis): “He made the clarinet talk, and it usually said ‘please put me back in my case’”. He was also a fun loving drinker and party animal, and did much to create the image of the jazz musician as a hip, unconventional bohemian.

 He will come up again later in the blog, when musicians reacting against swing are looking for a figure head and rallying point. But for now, let’s hear some of his music:

Here is his band, McKenzie and Condon’s Chicagoans, on a tune he co-wrote:

You can hear his banjo with its descending chord sequence just ahead of the beat, propelling the tune forward.

The personnel is: Eddie Condon – banjo, Bud Freeman – tenor saxophone, Gene Krupa – drums, Jim Lanigan – bass, Jimmy McPartland – cornet, Frank Teschemacher – clarinet, Joe Sullivan – piano, and possibly Mezz Mezzrow on cymbals.

And here are his Footwarmers, with Jack Teagarden on trombone and vocals:

Here’s Eddie with Louis Armstrong in 1929, pretty far down the mix as it happens, but it’s a great track!

His work with Fats Waller is better known, but that’s in the 30s, so I’m not going to include it here.

 But, actually, what is important about the man is better told in his own words, in his book about jazz in the 20s and 30s: We Called It Music.

 More Condon-isms:

- Someday banjo-players may have as many followers as the harpsicord.

- To cure a hangover: Take the juice of two quarts of whiskey.

- Finally, Beiderbecke took out a silver cornet. He put it to his lips and blew a phrase. The sound came out like a girl saying 'Yes!'

Eddie Condon on CD:
There’s a 4 CD set of Eddie’s recording career from JSP. Since he played with so many greats including Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday, it’s quite a collection!

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