I spoke yesterday to Bob Rusch, founder and publisher of Cadence magazine, which has been around since January 1976. Cadence is devoted to jazz, with a focus on independent artists both here and abroad. Rusch also owns Cadence Records, which records and produces about 25 CDs a year.
Rusch said back in the mid-1950s, when he was 13 years old, he had the good fortune to interview W.C. Handy, who wrote the music and lyrics to St. Louis Blues and so many other well-known early blues songs. Handy is considered by music historians to be the inventor of the 12-bar blues form. Here's what Rusch remembers from his talk with Handy:
"My friend’s father was a shrink and had a portable Dictaphone, which recorded sound onto these green floppy discs. The thing weighed a ton and was huge—about 16 inches, by 12 inches, by 16 inches. My friend and I lugged it to Grand Central, took the train up to Chappaqua, NY, where Handy was living at the time. We dragged the machine to his house, which wasn't too far from the station.
"By age 13, I was already sneaking into Birdland. Jazz fascinated me and it was cheap to get in—75 cents or something. My mother—who thought I was running around with gangsters—used to call Birdland and ask if 'my boy' was there and if they would send me home. New York was a different place then.
"Handy was a nice guy. He gave us about an hour and a half, and he cried a lot during the interview. He was very sentimental.
"What I remember most, besides the crying, was Handy describing how he came up with the lyrics to many of his early blues songs. He said, 'You know, when I was little, they had these courtyards between the houses. The women would hang their laundry and throw coded remarks back and forth about the men, neighbors and everything else. I remembered many of those lines and worked them into my songs.'
"Handy was amazing. I remember we held the mike too close to his mouth and the recordings came out blurry. I have no idea where those green discs are now. Unfortunately they were lost. It's still amazing to me how that courtyard banter wound up becoming the soul of the blues. What audiences were responding to when his songs were published and played was the honesty and authenticity of the music and lyrics. The same is true today."
The blues has always been the meat and potatoes of jazz. It's at the heart of the music—technically and spiritually. Like a fabulous baton, the blues has been passed in one form or another from Louis to Basie to Prez to Billie to Bird to Miles and to Trane—and every jazz artist and singer in between. The purity and poetry of the blues continues to find resonance because the blues somehow makes us feel more human.
Where did the blues come from? Most music historians point to Handy, who was born in Florence, Alabama, in 1873.
Handy took lessons on the cornet, formed a quartet, traveled to the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, and then decided to make a life in music. After teaching music, he joined a troupe that traveled extensively and performed in Cuba. In 1902, he formed his own group. Tom Morgan, an award-winning jazz author and host of terrific traditional jazz radio shows airing on WWOZ-FM in New Orleans (go here for a live stream on the web), picks up the Handy story in a web bio:
"This group was as much a marching band as a dance orchestra, and they performed for whites and blacks alike. At one of the performances for a white audience, Handy was asked to 'play some of your own music.' When he began to play, the audience loudly protested that he was not honoring their request. He and his group were asked to step aside.
"Then three local black men came on stage with string instruments and performed a type of primitive blues. It was obvious to Handy from the crowd reaction that he had missed something in his musical education: the rural sounds had both musical merit and crowd-pleasing potential. It was a lesson that would change Handy's life."
By 1909, Handy was living in Memphis and was asked to play for the campaign of Edward Crump, a local political boss. The popularity of Handy's live music—in particular, a song called Mister Crump—helped the politician win election. Morgan continues:
"[Mister Crump] was the first blues Handy ever wrote. Many consider it to be the first blues song in history, although due to Handy's problems finding a publisher it was preceded in print by Baby Seals Blues by Artie Matthews in August of 1912, and the Dallas Blues by Hart A. Wand in September of the same year. Handy's song, which had been released as an instrumental in 1910, came out at the end of September or the beginning of October 1912, when Handy finally decided to publish it himself...Later new words by George Norton were added and the title was changed to The Memphis Blues."
The Memphis Blues, with its 12-bar pattern, quickly became a hit throughout the country as the phonograph became increasingly popular and more musicians recorded the song. Flo Ziegfeld, the theater revue impresario, said he loved the tune, and Noble Sissle, the early jazz composer, said the song was the inspiration for the foxtrot.
Handy may have been the father of the blues, but he was much more. Handy inadvertently invented an artform with a highly contagious formula. By merging simple storytelling and impassioned music, Handy was able to move millions of listeners. The magnificence of his invention is that this artform—the blues—has been able to perform this soulful slight of hand again and again through the years without sacrificing its purity or integrity.
Handy's blues and all the blues that came afterward are the songs of America, the folktales of our history, the sound of where we've been as a country and the poetry that unites us as a people. Everyone loves the blues because deep down, we know it's our common language.
Wax tracks: The Memphis Blues has been recorded by hundreds of jazz artists over the years. Go here to hear a recording of Louis Armstrong's version from the mid-1950s, when he led Louis Armstrong and The All Stars.
Perhaps the most wonderful album of Handy's blues—including The Memphis Blues—was recorded by Pops himself in 1954: Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy. This is the true sound of Handy's blues—with all its soul, wit and melancholy—from the horn player who knew Handy's invention best.