If It Sounds Good, It Is Good! | November 2018
One hundred years ago this month, on November 11, 1918, “the war to end all wars” came to an end. Within the decade following World War I, America experienced a cultural awakening. Jazz, country and blues styles began to blossom across the nation—styles that would bear fruit in American popular music for the remainder of the century and define our shared musical ethos. It is this post-war period that provided the inspiration for the latest Cincinnati album, American Originals: 1918. You might have been in the audience at Music Hall a year ago, when the Pops created this, the Orchestra’s 95th recording, at concerts that featured guest artists whose regard for history equals their own musical originality and integrity. Together, we told a story of American music-making that is often overlooked.
Among the positive storylines to come out of this horrific war was the U.S. Army’s embrace of African-Americans, which ultimately led to new opportunities for all black Americans, especially musicians. Of the 370,000 African-American troops that served during the war, about 40,000 served in combat divisions, many of which established their own regimental bands. Much of the music we recorded has its genesis in the musicians that composed for, and performed in, these regimental bands—among them the legendary New York 369th Infantry “Hell Fighters” Regimental Band and the celebrated 350th Field Artillery Regiment “Black Devils” Orchestra.
Unlike traditional Army bands, the “Hell Fighters,” led by Lt. James Reese Europe, entertained troops and civilians by performing original works in a ragtime style with its infectious syncopation and high-energy flair. “All of France contracted ‘ragtimitus’ thanks to Jim Europe,” quipped fellow bandmate and singer Noble Sissle, who, along with Eubie Blake, wrote the groundbreaking 1921 musical Shuffle Along. The “Black Devils” Orchestra was led by Timothy Brymn, whose “Cocoanut Grove Jazz” shifts musical gears between swing, ragtime and boogie-woogie. It is no wonder that, after hearing these bands in Paris, composers like Stravinsky, Ravel, Poulenc and Milhaud were inspired to create jazz compositions of their own.
After their swing through Europe, these black regimental bands returned home in 1919 and took American audiences by storm. “We won France by playing music which was ours and not a pale imitation of others, and if we are to develop in America we must develop along our own lines,” said Europe, whose landmark 1919 recordings on Pathé Records include the first wildly popular jazz standards like “Memphis Blues” and “Strutter’s Ball,” both of which we recorded in new arrangements.
Early jazz recordings propelled the career of the “Empress of Blues” Bessie Smith, who helped make a hit of “I Ain’t Got Nobody” by Spencer Williams and Roger Graham, which went on to be covered by everyone from Louis Prima to David Lee Roth. Rhiannon Giddens sings our Bessie Smith tunes on the CD and delivers an authenticity that is both searing and heartfelt. She brought with her the brilliant tap-dancer Robyn Watson, whose electric performance of “Charleston” we were so fortunate to have captured, live. Another highlight of the recording is “Swing Along” by Will Marion Cook, from the first, full-length, all African-American production on Broadway, In Dahomey, which served as an anthem in the black community for two generations, including for the famed “Tuskegee Airmen.”
Like jazz, country music has its roots in the years between the wars and owes much of its early pedigree to folk music and blues. Guest artist Pokey LaFarge conveys the intimate musical connection between these nascent American musical styles with a unique vocal quality that recalls those early years of the 20th century. To folks who were at the concerts a year ago: you will be happy to know we also recorded the sensational Steep Canyon Rangers’ blazing encore of “Auden’s Train,” featuring the outrageous Nicky Sanders on the fiddle.
Of course, a recording of the music from World War I would not be complete without Irving Berlin’s beloved patriotic classic, “God Bless America,” and George M. Cohan’s iconic march, “Over There,” both given richly inventive settings by our Pops arranger Rob Mounsey. The brilliant American composer Peter Boyer also created a new work, “In the Cause of the Free,” featuring Principal Trumpet Robert Sullivan, to honor those thousands of young soldiers whose ultimate sacrifice over 100 years ago helped create a more peaceful world we all enjoy today.
It is always a joy to work with the remarkable musicians of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and the exceptional artists who helped shape this project from beginning to end. We are all deeply touched and awed by the composers and performers of a century ago whose work we celebrate in this recording; their struggles and brilliance inspired us in equal measure.