While watching the Ken Burns documentary Jazz, I realized all the music I love was born from the jazz and blues of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.
Ancient Egyptian paintings and sculptures all look like they were created by a sixth grader. They are stiff, flat profiles with feet, nose, and chin pointing in the same direction: no depth, no realism. All art was this primitive until the 5th century, when Greeks took a giant step forward … literally. They developed contrapposto, where a standing human figure is posed with their weight resting on one leg. The weight shift brought organic movement, bringing the paintings and sculptures to life. (Check out the 5th century Kritios Boy, which is the earliest known Greek statue to use contrapposto.)
Similarly, look at European art from the medieval times, or the Middle Ages, from the 5th century to the 15th century. Much of it is cartoonish—flat, distorted, and unrealistic. Baby Jesus almost always looks like a weird little man, not an infant. No wonder they called it the Dark Ages. Then Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and others, inspired by the ancient Greeks, built on this realism and brought about the Renaissance, pushing the world forward and making art come to life. I look at Ancient Egyptian art and feel nothing. I look at Michelangelo’s Pieta and weep. That’s what art is about.
I recently rewatched Ken Burns’ 10-part miniseries, Jazz. Sometime during the 2,280 minutes of running time, it occurred to me that American music went through a similar evolution as the world of visual art. Much as the Renaissance artists brought realism to art, jazz musicians— specifically Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong—brought realism to music. Here’s a little backstory.
“I listen to vaudeville; I feel nothing. I hear Armstrong and I weep.”
In 1877, when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, he was looking for a way to improve telegraph communications, going for what he called a “speaking telegraph.” Maybe it’s because Edison’s first recording was of him singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but quickly people figured out that if you’re going to record something, music is probably a solid option.
Partly fueled by Edison’s game-changing inventions, the United States was becoming a true superpower, leading the world in industry, tech, finance, etc. The Burns documentary suggests this was when U.S. leaders, trendsetters, and titans of industry thought that it was time for an American Bach to legitimize the nation’s contribution to the world’s music. They looked to the universities, the military, and the establishment to provide this musical genius.
One of the earliest recording artists (in the late 1800s) was John Philip Sousa, “the March King” of America. With all due respect, it’s amazing that records caught on. I’m as patriotic as the next person, but who in their right minds pours a class of wine and cranks up “The Stars and Stripes Forever” to relax at the end of a long day? Sousa’s marches feel as stiff and lifeless as an ancient Egyptian wall painting.
Louis Armstrong: When it comes to authenticity and swing, the buck starts here.
A decade later, in the early 20th century, vocalists dominated record sales. They were mostly vaudevillians like Billy Murray and Arthur Collins, who had hits like “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy.” They were theater performers, trained to act melodramatically while singing and speaking in a loud, affected manner so they could be understood in the back of a theater. It was a stage voice—not the voice of someone genuinely communicating or expressing emotion.
Then, in the 1920s, music took a contrapposto step in an unlikely way. One of the biggest artists of the early 1920s was Al Jolson, who performed in blackface, stealing bits from African-American culture and making it more palatable to a xenophobic white audience. Based on Jolson’s success, Columbia Records execs thought, “Hey, instead of a white guy in blackface singing a white guy’s interpretation of Black music, why not record the people they’re stealing from?”
“The powerful were looking to themselves for the answer when what they sought came from slaves and their poorly treated descendants. The poetry of it all.”
Columbia found and recorded Bessie Smith, a Black orphaned blues singer who grew up supporting her impoverished family by busking on the streets of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Smith’s genuine performances connected with record buyers. The “Empress of the Blues” became a wildly successful entertainer, which opened the gate for Louis Armstrong. Not only did Armstrong introduce the world to a swinging groove, his genuine, conversational voice made those trained, affected voices seem wooden by comparison. I listen to vaudeville; I feel nothing. I hear Armstrong and I weep.
It’s the classic unlikely origin story, like baby Jesus being born in a manger. The necessary hero/savior rarely comes from the establishment. The powerful were looking to themselves for the answer when what they sought came from slaves and their poorly treated descendants. The poetry of it all.
Duke Ellington, Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, the Stones, Miles Davis, Prince, Zeppelin, Clapton, and pretty much everything I love descended from the jazz and blues of Bessie Smith and Satchmo. When Duke Ellington was asked how he felt when he couldn’t stay at the hotels where he performed, he replied, “I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.”
- A Practical Approach to Picking Proficiency - Premier Guitar ›
- Django's Gypsy-Jazz Secrets - Premier Guitar ›
- The Hub of Hip-Hop Bass Playing - Premier Guitar ›
- Playing Bach’s BWV 995 Sarabande - Premier Guitar ›
Looking for more great gear for the guitar player in your life (yourself included!)? Check out this year's Holiday Gear Finds!
D'Addario XPND Pedalboard
DR-05X Stereo Handheld Recorder
Wampler Pedals Ratsbane
Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
LegendaryTones, LLC today announced production availability of its new Mr. Scary Mod, a 100% pure tube module designed to instantly and easily expand the capabilities of many classic amplifiers with additional gain and tone shaping. Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
Originally released as the Lynch Mod in February 2021, the updated Mr. Scary Mod features the same core circuit as the Lynch Mod but is now equipped with a revised tube mix combo per George’s preference as well as a facelift in a newly redesigned electro-galvanized steel enclosure. As with the Lynch Mod, each run will be limited and the first run in Pumpkin Orange with Black hardware is limited to just 150 pieces worldwide.
The Mr. Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage on top of the cathode follower position, keeping note definition and articulation while further increasing sustain. Each Mr. Scary mod is meticulously built by hand in the USA, one at a time, and tuned using high-grade components. Equipped with a single ECC81 (12AT7) in the first position and ECC83 (12AX7) in the second, the Mr. Scary Mod can clean up beautifully when rolling down your guitar’s volume, and still adds scorching gain when you roll it back up. This is a gain stage that’s been tuned and approved by the ears of the maestro George Lynch himself.
“The Mr. Scary Mod excels with dynamics and is incredibly touch-responsive, allowing me to shift from playing clear, lightly compressed cleans to full-out aggressive sustain and distortion –and control it all simply by varying my guitar’s volume control and picking,” said GeorgeLynch. “In many ways, it’s an old-school approach, but it’s also so much more natural and expressive in addition to being musically fulfilling when you can play both the guitar and amp dynamically together this way.”
The Mr. Scary Mod installs in minutes, is safe and effective to use, and requires no special tools or re-biasing of the amplifier. Simply insert the module into the cathode follower preamp position of compatible amplifiers (includes Marshall 2203/2204/1959/1987 circuits) and
immediately get the benefit of enjoying a hot-rodded amp that delivers all the pure harmonic character that comes with an added pure tube gain stage. The handmade in the USA Mr. Scary Mod is now available to order for $319.
For more information, please visit legendarytones.com.
October Audio has miniaturized their NVMBR Gain pedal to create two mini versions of this beautifully organic-sounding circuit – including an always-on gain device.
The NVMBR Gain is a nonlinear amp that transitions gracefully from clean boost to overdriven tones. Volume increases from just over unity to about 10db before soft-clipping drive appears for another 5db of boost. Its extraordinary ease of use is matched by outstanding versatility: you can use it as a clean boost, push a stubborn amp into overdrive or create a just-breaking-up sound at any amp volume.
October Audio’s new family of mini NVMBR Gain pedals includes a switchable version that allows you to bypass the effect: one option features brand logo pedal graphics, while the other sports a fun “Witch Finger” graphic with a Davies knob as the“fingernail”.
The second version in the new lineup is an always-on device featuring the Witch Finger graphic and Davies knob, with the same NVMBR Gain circuit that lies at the core of the switchable version.
- Knob controls gain and clipping simultaneously
- Stunning silver hammertone finish
- Switchable versions are true-bypass, available with classic or witch finger graphics
- Authentic Davies knobs, including the “fingernail”
- 9V center negative power supply required
- Dimensions: 3.63 x 1.50 x 1.88 in
Witch Finger (always on NVMBR Gain) demo
All October Audio pedals are assembled in Richmond, VA, and available for purchase directly through the online shop. Street price is $109 for NVMBR Gain footswitch versions and $89 for the always-on device.
For more information, please visit octoberaudio.com.