Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Bessie Smith - Introduction

Bessie Smith is always the best place to start. Whenever you listen she becomes an immediate, fully realized presence - that's the nature of her art. Most people know her already, or at least have heard of her. She's definitely one of those artists who weren't meant for the background. At the start of her career, Billie Holiday, whose style and singing were influenced by Bessie Smith yet who approaches the music in a very different manner, singing in a small New York speakeasy, used to move from one table to the next, singing intimately to each party for tips; this doubtless influenced her later recording style. Bessie, by contrast, stood alone on a stage accompanied by either a piano or a small jazz band; her audiences, often huge, whether at a tent show, speakeasy, or private buffet, stood and swayed with her music. There was nothing especially intimate about the setting, yet her delivery, as loud and punchy as it might appear - and as it had to be to project - probably sounds in its own way just as intimate as Miss Holiday's.

I get the impression that Bessie had powerful ties to her Black community in the South and to her own people. I also get the impression that she was difficult, impulsive, powerful, and quick to anger. She is remembered for chasing off a bunch of rowdy racists at a tent meeting; I'm sure those who knew her personally had cause to remember other experiences with Bessie, and of all sorts. She loved her music, but she also loved having a good time, getting drunk, and the occasional - so it is rumored - wild sexual performances, at least at some point in her career. The buffets where she performed included live sex acts on stage. She played favorites, and had awful taste in male partners. She was befriended and helped in her career by the great and powerful Ma Rainey, whose own wonderful recordings evidently fail to do justice to her own younger voice. Bessie Smith's rejection of white society is perhaps more meaningful to us than to her contemporaries.

Bessie Smith's talent also helps to explain an important feature of artistry in blues and jazz recordings generally, where character and personality help to define authentic performance. One of the greatest artists of the 20th Century, she, with a few score other artists - Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, among others - defined the essential characteristics of jazz and blues from its origins through the onset of bebop in the 1940s. If you start with Bessie... well, with Louis too, of course... you can start appreciating that combination of musical talent and dramatic flair which makes so much of listening to this sort of music about the personality and character of the performing artists, and how they create and develop stories - as it were - for that character in their music. She sings the blues, not, generally speaking, ballads, but each of her songs - as most good songs do - tells a story. Blues choruses proceed one after the other in a song; even if they are drawn randomly from the stock verses already in play and available to any and all performers, as expressed in linear form from start to finish something of a narrative experience starts to develop. Her ability to express powerful emotions with enormous authority and strength of will derives from her performing both the lyrics and the music as consummate dramatic and musical artist, often at the minutest level of details. When we listen to Bessie we learn to appreciate the microtonal distinctions she makes with words and notes, and how genuinely expressive phrasing can be. She is the kind of singer you seem to get to know personally through her songs because in each song she develops a personality that commands our attention and, often, demands some response. Both Bessie Smith's musical sophistication and her artistic legacy are beyond compare.

Bessie was all personality and character, a tough cookie but a soft touch, and she made it to the top of her profession before finding the dumps she sang so importantly about. She was called the "Empress of the Blues," and during the twenties her music was just what her audiences craved. She lived well. In the early days of swing - the early thirties - audiences sought different sorts of experiences from their music, and they abandoned her. Evidence suggests that after several years down she was about to make a good career choice.

She died on the rainy night of September 26, 1937, near Greensville, Mississippi, of injuries sustained in an automobile accident. The story that she was denied access to a white hospital is well-known, though it may be more legend than fact. For anyone familiar with Mississippi in the 1930s, Si non e vero, e ben trovato. Everyone who knows this music can picture in their ears the imagined experience of listening to a Bessie Smith who miraculously never died in that accident, playing throughout the late thirties and the forties with the likes of Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and their crowd. Had she lived another decade or two, the development of the blues and popular music in the second half of the 20th Century would have been impressively different, I think. As an historical and cultural figure whom we can learn to interpret, the life of Bessie Smith conveys lots and lots of good information about American life in the first quarter of the 20th Century, as, of course, do the legends and lies that have accompanied her.

When I was growing up - and it may still be the case - it seemed that people who liked and listened to jazz did not follow the blues so much, and blues people didn't go much for jazz. Gross oversimplification, but there you are. Bessie Smith is one of the rare artists - Lonnie Johnson comes to mind - who record in both the blues and the jazz traditions. The blues tradition she exemplifies is known as the “classic blues,” a term used to describe the blues as performed by robust female singers accompanied by a small band.

Bessie Smith was a highly successful performer during much of her career, and one of the most influential of jazz artists, in part because of her impressive musical talent and because she communicated so effectively with her audience, whom she knew well. She sang for her people. Yet her singing, of course, reaches deep into all of us. It sounds authentic, genuine, powerful, and also highly expressive and artistic.