My Year in Lists: Volume II
Week Two
My Year in Lists: Volume II chronicles one blogger's masochistic return to the feature that got him hooked on sonics. This time around, the feature will focus on three genres that got short shrift during the original feature: country, hip hop, and jazz. All three are oft-dismissed genres this feature plans to grant a second chance at a first impression.

"It's worse than Louie Armstrong."-Erroll Garner, "Erroll's Theme"

There is perhaps no more powerful force in American culture (or, for that matter, culture generally) than myth. Since the dawn of our country, America has thrived on its own myths, driving itself toward goals wrought more from ideals than from reality. First it was the myth of independence, the idea of forming a country free from the shackles of oppression. Following that, the myth of Manifest Destiny captivated our minds and drove us ever west. And in the twentieth century, there was arguably no cultural force as powerful as the then-emerging American Dream, the idea that anyone could make it in this country with the right mix of integrity and hard work.

Each of these myths is present in some way in the artists we will look at this week, but these artists are also contending with myths of their own making, trying to succeed against their own personal legends. For jazz pianist Erroll Garner, that legend is Louis Armstrong. Without a doubt, Louis Armstrong is a titan of jazz. Born at the turn of the twentieth century, Satchmo (as Armstrong came to be known) came to prominence as jazz grew popular in the roaring "˜20s, becoming a force to be reckoned with as a trumpeter, cornet player, and as a vocalist. Louis Armstrong transcended his own style, transcended jazz as a genre (becoming a giant crossover hit) and transcended race in an era where the color of his skin could have shut him down entirely. So yeah, he was pretty ok.

To Erroll Garner, Armstrong must have been many things. He was almost assuredly a personal hero of Garner's, an idol who paved the way for many of the jazz musicians. Yet there was also probably a tinge of jealousy in Garner's attitude toward Armstrong: this was the man whose shadow he would probably always labor in, the man whose name is so synonymous with jazz that all others must contend with his enviable body of work. Garner was born in 1923, around the same time Armstrong started to take off. While Armstrong was developing into a legend, Garner was only a prodigy, playing piano by the age of three and developing throughout his adolescence despite remaining an "ear player," who never learned how to read music. By age seven, Garner was on the radio as a member of the jazz group Candy Kids. By eleven, he was playing on riverboats, and by fourteen, he had teamed up with saxophonist (and minor legend in his own right) Leroy Brown. He may not have become a cross-over sensation like Armstrong, but Garner was no slouch either, doing more before he reached adulthood than I probably will in the entirety of my life (when I say I'm an "ear player" it means that my playing hurts people's ears).

If Garner was, at least metaphorically, playing in the shadow of Armstrong, he was actually playing in the shadow of his older brother Linton Garner. Both were pianists, and both well known in the Pittsburgh music scene (though Erroll was refused membership in the Pittsburgh music union until 1956 due to his inability to read music), though once Garner headed to New York, he managed to make his own way, even playing with Charlie Parker on the famous "Cool Blues" session. Garner also contended with standing in the shadow of plenty of men who were far less accomplished"”at five feet, two inches tall, he was forced to play the piano sitting on a stack of phone books.

Almost none of these various worries over inferiority (which, to be fair, I largely ascribe onto Garner based on the one line of dialogue he speaks on the record, quoted at the opening of this installment) show up on Concert by the Sea, which Garner recorded live on September 19, 1955 in Carmel, California. Featuring Eddie Calhoun on bass and Denzil Best on drums, the album is a sublime mixture of classics and Garner originals that displays his inventiveness and flair for the improvisational.

The album is full of Garner's take on classics, including "I'll Remember April," Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me," the Gershwin hit "They Can't Take That Away from Me" and the jazz standard "April in Paris" (which is such a perennial classic of the genre, we have already heard two versions of it in this feature's first two weeks). Garner imbues each of these with a loose, improvisational style, holding the beat with one hand while deviating and experimenting with the other.

His takes on established songs display his distinct style very well, but it is his originals that really shine. "Mambo Carmel" is a propulsive piece that is at once playfully exotic and soothing, a mambo number that captures the free-spirited nature of the genre without losing Garner's tendency to reinforce form. The album closes with "Erroll's Theme," an insanely catchy minute long ditty that at once seems to return to the themes Garner has utilized throughout the album and to create a new sound.

When Garner closes the album with his one line of dialogue, "It's worse than Louis Armstrong," it is charmingly self-effacing, but not entirely accurate. Garner may never have become the cross-over sensation that Armstrong did, but what he does on Concert by the Sea is masterful in its own way, a unique blend of classic harmonies and perfectly attuned improvisation. Garner is a piano player of phenomenal quality, a man who can bring a staid piece to life and take even the most exciting track to a new level with his furious tickling of the ivories. Garner may not have viewed himself as a God of Jazz, but with the benefit of hindsight and the excellence of Concert by the Sea, it's hard not to view him as at least a lesser deity.

Marty Robbins, like most country singers on some level, was contending with a different sort of myth, one that is both more familiar and more vaguely defined: the American West. The American West and all its attendant mythology has a pull on our collective consciousness that is more powerful than almost any other piece of America's pop culture legacy. The western, in its film, television, and musical forms, has expanded far beyond our country's actual borders to become a global phenomenon (if you doubt me, look no further than the Spaghetti Western, an entire genre populated by foreigners pretending to play Americans in a Spanish desert that plays the part of the American West so well, you probably think of it whenever you consider a Western milieu).

Considering the stakes, Robbins comes off incredibly well on his legendary album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs which runs the gamut of iconic western imagery and structure over the course of its twelve tracks. From the first moments of opening track, "Big Iron," it becomes clear that something different is going on. Robbins has a voice made for country, so much so that he sounds from the first like your ideal conception of a twang-y balladeer. "Big Iron" is a fairly traditional story of a western showdown between an unnamed Arizona Ranger and an outlaw named Texas Red who has already killed 20 men. With funny little twists (the duel takes place not at high noon, but 11:20) and a traditional charm, the song is a strong argument for a country standard: the "story song." I am sure we will get far deeper into that subgenre over the course of this year, but for now, let me say that if any of the other legends of country "story song" ballads pulls it off with the verve that Robbins displays, I may be made a convert yet. Robbins' cover of "They're Hanging Me Tonight" brings the requisite sobriety to the song, turning in a beautiful performance that is moving in a kitschy, western camp sort of way.

"El Paso," one of Robbins' greatest hits (even crossing over to the pop music charts), tells the simple story of a man in love with a Mexican lady, but spices things up with a haunting harmony and perfectly deployed Spanish guitar. The song, like most of Robbins', is a fairly traditional western narrative, but it is presented so straightforwardly and with such confidence that it becomes gripping in spite of its narrative conventions. "The Master's Call," by comparison is a startlingly personal song, with Robbins turning his decision to become a performer and the ramifications it had for his life into the story of a man getting caught up with a band of outlaws.

There's admittedly an element of camp to my appreciation of Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. The album would feel like a great pulp novel if it wasn't so unabashedly earnest, performed without a hint of irony and in the startlingly clear voice of Robbins. The man was born to sing tales of hangings, outlaws, and gun fights, and his crisp vocals pull you in even if you are the type to resist such lurid tales. There are of course spiritual elements to Robbins' songs (he is a country singer after all, and they love the big cowboy in the sky), but the singer never sounds more devout than in his descriptions of the scenes you have seen play out in dozens of westerns before. At heart, it seems, Robbins is a man who loves a great story, and he spins some very compelling yarns on Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. I'm surprised how much I enjoyed the album, and I imagine my feelings on it will evolve as it inevitably gets played again in the next few weeks. For now, though, I am fully on board with the "story song," especially if it can be brought across with the verve of Marty Robbins.

If Erroll Garner contended with the myth of Louis Armstrong and Marty Robbins reckoned with conceptions of the Old West, James Todd Smith was more interested in myth-making. Much of early hip hop is focused on braggadocio, a building of a myth around the singers themselves and the culture they created by embodying it and selling it to a wider audience. Growing up in the inner-city might have left Smith battling against the falsity of the American Dream (and there's a very good argument that much of hip hop is about just that). While that does enter into some of his music, what seems much more important to him is the creation of a myth about himself.

This self-mythologizing turned James Todd Smith into LL Cool J, a rapper whose very name (which stands for Ladies Love Cool James) is a testament to his own status as an icon. His debut album Radio was a monumental step forward for hip hop and a huge influence on the development of the genre. LL Cool J wasn't "discovered" in any way, shape or form; he made himself known. He came up in the New York City rap scene, and after being given $2,000 worth of stereo equipment by his jazz saxophonist grandfather, he began creating his own demos and sending them out to record companies, including Rick Rubin's Def Jam Recordings. When Def Jam showed an interest, LL dropped out of high school to record his debut album, which would become the label's first LP.

The album's opening track, "I Can't Live Without My Radio," is a love song of sorts to the titular device, which LL Cool J seems to need to sustain his very existence. "Dear Yvette," a song about the promiscuity of a young girl, revealed the relative immaturity of LL Cool J (who was admittedly still a teenager when it was recorded), and, in a way, of the larger genre at the time. Hip Hop was still in its nascent stages in 1985, mostly popular among inner city youth, and "Dear Yvette" connected, helping the album to sell in its key demographic.

"Rock the Bells" is the album's classic of self-promotion, a four minute ode to the genius of its singer. There's something endearingly bemusing about LL Cool J's brand of hip earnestness. His name is far from cool by today's standards, but in the hallowed early days of hip hop, just being willing to stand up and rap about how great you were was usually enough to confirm that fact to your fanbase. "You'll Rock" relies fairly heavily on scratching to carry it over, and mostly comes across as a lesser version of "Rock the Bells," an "I'm so great, it's insane!" track that isn't good enough to back up its singer's claims.

Radio rocketed LL Cool J to superstardom, making him one of the first hip hop acts to enjoy mainstream success of the sort that would eventually allow him to be on such seminal television series as NCIS: Los Angeles and other modern classics. Before LL Cool J would shed much of his street cred to fight crime with Robin (or whatever the hell that show is about), his debut album was instrumental in the "new school" movement that stripped down hip hop, added elements of rock and roll, and heavily involved the self-hype that is evident throughout Radio. A pioneer of rap-rock and the more hardcore method of delivery that would soon entirely replace the sillier sounds of groups like The Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, LL Cool J made his own myth, and then sold it so forcefully he remade an entire genre in his image. The hip hop that is to come for the rest of this feature will look far more like Radio than like The Message, and while I can't say that I loved this album, I can certainly see the nearly unparalleled influence it had on the genre.

The power of myth is a driving force behind our culture, whether we are contending with legends who preceded us, adapting to an iconic view of our past, or throwing out much of what came before to make myths of ourselves. Erroll Garner played in the shadow of his predecessor, yet created vibrant, wonderfully inventive piano instrumentations in the process. Marty Robbins took the mythic contours of the American West and turned himself into an old fashioned storyteller who delivered melodic yarns at once familiar and new. LL Cool J took his stereo and his faith in himself, and became a myth through sheer force of will. Each man looked at the greatness that had come before them, and each, refusing to be cowed by prior triumphs, became icons in their own right.

Next week on My Year in Lists:

Duke Ellington is At Newport, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force take us to Planet Rock: The Album and The Louvin Brothers let us know Satan is Real

Read more My Year in Lists here
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