The Jazz Festival all around us in downtown Orillia this weekend. We have hundreds of top-flight musicians playing traditional-but-not-boring music all over the place, and much of it is free. For music lovers, this is heaven.
Most musicians who play traditional music, and even some who don`t, like to play it on vintage instruments. There are a lot of very focused musicians out there so we are all aware there is a good market for quality, vintage musical instruments. Even beat up ones can be highly sought-after if they play well.
Much of that market is driven by rock fans that are focused on guitars and amplifiers. Jazz plays only a small part but it offers a much wider variety of instruments. When jazz was the dominant popular music, the stars would play almost anything; piano, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, vibraphone and violin players were all prominent. Jazz itself defined how many of those instruments are used and perceived in today’s music.
The guitar is a classic example. What we now call the acoustic guitar came from Spain and was used as a rhythm instrument in America at the turn of the last century. Artists like Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Lang and Carl Kress brought it out front but guitar playing as we know it was born was when Charlie Christian joined the Benny Goodman Orchestra in 1936 playing electric guitar.
Goodman took a real chance. It still wasn’t normal for a white bandleader to hire a black musician and no band had ever used an electric guitar before but that’s what jazz artists do; they take chances. Whether it’s a big move like that or your next solo, nothing is for sure. Jazz musicians are more inclined to adapt and change how things are done for the sake of the music.
A hundred years ago there was a pretty limited choice of instruments that were loud enough to be heard in a large crowd. Jazz evolved from marching bands so there was a lot of brass and most early jazz dance bands used a tuba for a solid base line. It worked but it was pretty stiff. Some powerful players such as Wellman Braud with Duke Ellington’s band and Walter Page with Count Basie showed you could use the classical contrabass, plucked instead of bowed, to provide a much more melodic bottom end. When better microphone technology meant a player didn’t have the strength of Sampson to be heard all jazz bands adopted what became known as the standing bass because it allowed them to swing. From there it went into western swing, bluegrass, rock-a-billy and early rock ‘n’ roll. It’s bulky and doesn’t travel well but purists in all genres still use it today because it looks and sounds better than an electric bass.
There are lots of examples of instruments that were transformed during the jazz era but, uniquely, the drum kit, which is ubiquitous in modern pop may be the only instrument invented for the jazz band.
Again going back to the early marching band days, snare drums kept time while bass drums mobilized the troops. That required at least two players. Early dance and concert bands often used two or three people on percussion but, because of economic and space restraints, they found ways to put things together in a kit so all percussion could be played by one person. The invention of spring-loaded pedals allowed drummers to use their legs as effectively as their arms so they could play four independent percussion parts at once. That’s quite a trick and something that certainly had not been done in marching bands or any other form of musical ensemble.
A number of drummers added all sorts of gadgets to their kits, literally bells and whistles. That’s why the kit came to be called a trap, short for ‘contraption’.
The Ludwig Company of Chicago (then known as Ludwig & Ludwig) made the first manufactured drum kit, called the Jazz-er-Up, in 1918 and was a major player in the relatively small market for the next twenty years. The Slingerland Company, also of Chicago had been a small manufacturer of ukuleles and banjos but when Ludwig started making banjos in 1927, they responded by making drums. At first they concentrated on marching band instruments but in 1936 they introduced their Radio King series of drum kits, high quality drums aimed at the top end of the jazz band market.
Quality is good but you need promotion, and luck, to make it in business, Slingerland got plenty of both when they hooked up with Gene Krupa.
Legend has it that Krupa, who had just joined the Bennie Goodman Orchestra as a relative unknown, asked Ludwig to let him buy a set of drums at a wholesale price in exchange for him endorsing their product. They turned him down. He then offered the same deal to Slingerland who gladly accepted.
Who knew? What kind of celebrity endorsement can you get from the guy at the back keeping time?
The game had changed. In a jazz band everybody gets a solo, even those in the rhythm section. Krupa was flamboyant, charismatic, a brilliant marketer and generally accepted as the best drummer ever. His solos are legendary; he became so popular he began to steal the spotlight from Goodman himself and eventually went on to form his own band. He didn’t just promote Radio King kits, he helped design them. He stripped the kit down to its bare essentials, developed the tunable tom-tom and popularized the hi-hat cymbal. His kit, in eye-dazzling white, became the industry standard and pretty well every major big band drummer began using, and endorsing, Radio Kings.
In the 1940s most drum manufacturers turned to plywood construction but Slingerland stuck with solid, steam-bent maple right up until the 1970s. This insistence on quality and their high celebrity profile makes vintage Radio Kings a favourite of collectors today, prices for single drums can get into the thousands.
As the big band era ended many leaders stripped their groups down to make them more economically viable; guitar, bass and drums with maybe a sax or piano. That became the standard line-up for rock ‘n’ roll and when The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show the most prominent instrument you could see was Ringo Starr’s set of Ludwig drums. Apparently it was Starr who had the Ludwig name painted on the bass drum, not because he was paid to but because he was proud to own a set. That was the end of the road for Radio Kings though Gibson, which now owns Slingerland, still makes a Gene Krupa Signature Set.
The jazz players you see this weekend are often on a tight budget and have to travel so many will use lightweight electronic equipment. A good musician can play almost any instrument and make it sound great but if you love vintage 1930s and 40s jazz, you know nothing can beat the warm, smooth sound and iconic look of those vintage instruments, that’s why so many musicians will spend the money and put up with the inconvenience, all in the name of music.