We gave it an A
When I was in college, members of the music faculty expressed disdain for the idea that jazz and blues were America’s indigenous classical musics. Time, they insisted, would tell.
It has. As this century draws to a close, the great jazz recordings of 60 and 70 years ago are the hardiest sellers of all archival music released on compact disc. Bessie Smith’s The Complete Recordings Vol. 1 — the first installment of a four-volume rerelease of Smith’s 160 sides, recorded between 1923 and 1933 — reminds us that, along with classical tenor Enrico Caruso, Smith remains the most durably popular singer from the early years of sound recording. Listening to the Empress of the Blues (as she was billed) declaim blues and imbue pop songs with rugged, often irreverent authority is an experience that transcends time and musical category.
Smith came out of the era of tent shows and vaudeville, when an elaborately gowned woman could command the stage with lyrics that struck deep into the heart of personal and topical experience. The blues — the simplest and most enduring musical form of the century — had come into its own and could impart every emotion, from revival-day jubilation to musings on death and despair. Smith, a large, imperious presence whose smooth-skinned face could beam pleasure or collapse into an anguished frown, utterly dominated the stage and her audiences.
Miraculously, her power is captured in her recorded performances as well. She had extraordinary expressive power; her impeccable intonation and agile phrasing brought lyrics vividly alive. Her enunciation was so precise you can hear every word — in sharing her experience with such telling immediacy, she makes it our experience, underscoring feelings and perceptions unaltered by time. And yet another aspect of Smith’s durability is her sense of swing and her ability to embellish a melodic phrase, two characteristics of jazz singing that make her seem extraordinarily modern. You don’t have to strain to enjoy her: She radiates an aggressive, womanly strength that lifts you up.
The Complete Recordings Vol. 1 collects, in chronological order on two CDs, Smith’s first 38 performances, including some of her most stirring work: ”Down Hearted Blues,” her robust recording debut; the defiantly brazen ”’Tain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do”; the ominously rocking ”Jail-House Blues,” with its unusually wide vocal range; ”Any Woman’s Blues,” which became something of a feminist anthem in the early ’70s; and many others. The remaining three volumes will include even more varied work, such as the imperishable call-and-response collaborations between Smith’s voice and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, and the vaudeville numbers of her last session, in 1933.
By then, in the depth of the Depression, blues were no longer in vogue; when Smith died four years later, in a car accident at 42, she was virtually forgotten. A couple of years later, though, a traditionalist jazz revival spurred her rediscovery, and she has remained in the pantheon of modern classics ever since. (I’ve knocked the ”plus” off my rating because of Columbia’s wastefully bulky package, and because digital engineering has robbed the music of some of its warmth.) A