Writings about Music
Louis Prima and John Coltrane by Way of Benny Goodman
Composer Michael Robinson connects the original "Sing, Sing Sing"by Louis Prima, and a later version by Benny Goodman, with "Africa" by John Coltrane.
As mentioned in the liner notes of my new album, Queen of Space, the last few years have found me fascinated with swing jazz. You see, my background has been heavily tilted towards modern, modal and avant garde jazz, and now swing has also proven to be a vastly engaging enterprise filled with musical wonders and richness.
My ears perked up upon investigating the "modal" jazz found in "Sing, Sing, Sing" famously performed live at Carnegie Hall in 1938 by the Benny Goodman Orchestra, arranged by Jimmy Mundy, including a superb improvised duet by Goodman and drummer Gene Krupa. What they play amounts to an early form of modal jazz, including strong connections to Indian ragas, which I’m pretty confident Goodman and Krupa were unaware of at the time.
Learning "Sing, Sing, Sing" was composed, performed and recorded by Louis Prima in 1936, I went and listened to his original version, finding that highly exciting and transfixing as well. Prima, a vocalist and trumpeter, was both the composer and lyricist for the song. Here are some of the charged lyrics:
Sing, sing, sing, sing
And when the music goes around
And then it struck me. John Coltrane’s 1961 recording of "Africa" from the Africa Brass album, very much seems to have been inspired by Benny Goodman’s live Carnegie Hall recording of "Sing Sing Sing." Both are historically primal exhortations of largely pure rhythm and melody rivaling the greatest jazz recordings of all time. Both efforts employ dramatic usage of a brass ensemble. And while Coltrane’s improvisation goes further than Goodman’s – this was post Kind of Blue, of course – both solos amount to superlative jazz, as does the drumming of Gene Krupa and Elvin Jones, respectively. And the original Louis Prima recording of "Sing, Sing, Sing" may have been a favorite of Coltrane, too, including Prima's trumpet melismas, both fluid and percussive. Orchestration for "Africa" is credited to Eric Dolphy and McCoy Tyner.
In terms of keys or tonal centers and tempo, the original Prima recording is centered in G minor with a BPM around 109. The live Goodman version is centered in E minor with around the same BPM of 109. Coltrane's piece takes things a bit slower, the prevailing rasa more ominous than celebratory, moving with a BPM of around 92 while also employing a tonal center of E minor, adding weight to my argument - not that I was looking for it, but there it is - this being a rather unusual key or tonal center for jazz. Most expressive and captivating, Coltrane makes his themed entrance centered on D minor, providing a powerful usage of poly-modality before shifting his improvisation to the tonal center proper if with considerable straying. Both Goodman's live version of "Sing, Sing, Sing" and "Africa" make prominent use of the flatted fifth, an interval that became a melodic and harmonic focus for the modern jazz innovations of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Lennie Tristano beginning in the forties. And, by the way, there are myriad Indian ragas using this same melodic interval.
It may be impossible to prove or disprove my theory here because the principles are no longer with us. But I’m rather certain my hunch is correct based on the musical evidence I now have as part of my current immersion into swing jazz, including finding new connections previously unnoticed. My sense is that the chance of the connections I hear being a coincidence are about zero. Of course, what Coltrane did is highly creative and original, "Africa" being one of my absolute favorite John Coltrane recordings, something Steve Reich concurs with.
And I love how my findings turned out to come chronologically from Italian American, Jewish American and African American jazz musicians, demonstrating the intercultural richness that gave rise to jazz.
My own music, well, one way to think of it may be as a descendent of cool jazz. I mean, what is more laid-back and cool than a computer performing music? But cool jazz is a misnomer, of course. Artists like Lee Konitz are about as cool as an invisible laser beam that cuts through the hardest substances like butter. And the highly charged and complex nature informing much of my music is often more animated and intense than traditional musicians, my method of performance designed to synergize with the unique nature of my compositions.
So, I have my composed music for meruvina, my name for the combination of software and hardware deployed to perform my compositions in real time without any human interference or interaction, finding this concept closer to both the elements of Nature and anahata nada. And I’ve also begun releasing albums of piano improvisations, enjoying this type of more traditional music making as well, my progress seemingly only limited by the amount of time I'm able to practice toward developing a new body of piano improvisations.
Getting back to "Sing, Sing, Sing" and "Africa," it's raining here tonight, something that occurs once in a blue moon, and just before, I heard through an open window collected rain water falling through and on the drain pipes with approximate pitches and rhythms closely reminiscent of the haunting opening bass patterns used in "Africa." Quite a coincidence! But I did take this to mean I may be on the right train track after all.
Lastly, I got to thinking about what may have inspired Louis Prima to create "Sing, Sing, Sing." What came to mind is "Play Fiddle Play" by Arthur Altman, composed in the early thirties. There is a related minor mood and musical thrust informing the two songs, but I admit this is a more speculative notion, though within the realm of possibility, especially since "Play Fiddle Play" appears to have become a jazz favorite performed by myriad artists prior to Prima writing "Sing, Sing, Sing."
What I do know for a fact is that Lee Konitz used "Play Fiddle Play" as the basis for "Kary's Trance," which I've long felt is the finest jazz composition ever.
If you wish to touch greatness, sit down at the piano, and play the melody of "Kary's Trance." You will marvel at the melodic and rhythmic intricacies married to expression.
- Michael Robinson, March 2020, Los Angeles
© 2020 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, jazz pianist, and musicologist. His 162 albums include 149 albums for meruvina and 13 albums of piano improvisations. He has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University.