Monday, February 20, 2012


The only one for whom an instrument
—the Sousaphone (a tuba)—is named.

Consider the number of unrecorded musicians—like Buddy Petit—and the number of recorded musicians—such as Bunk Johnson—and the number of bandleaders—King Oliver, for example—who were important to Louis Armstrong, a Crescent City native who would become the most exceptional figure, indisputably, in the history of American music. Through cornet and trumpet playing that established his reputation as a soloist (and established the standing of the jazz soloist in general) and his swinging, gravel-sweet voice, Satchmo would eventually influence just about every musician on this list, but calling these men and women important doesn’t mean that they were first to play their instruments or first to hold a microphone close to their mouths. It doesn’t even mean that they were greatest in their genres, or sub-genres, although many of them, posthumously and otherwise, continue to be giants. (Only a few on the list live to play.) No, these musicians excelled at absorbing rich cultural threads and transforming them into performances, recordings, and inventions that attracted the attention of other musicians, or intensive critical acclaim, or the interest of a new and durable audience; or, of course, all three. Many of the artists on this list composed groundbreaking works of their own, but the list, alas, does not contain a host of seminal American composers—Arlen, Barber, Berlin, Bernstein, Brubeck, Cage, Carmichael, Cohan, Copland, Feldman, Gershwin Bros., Glass, Hammerstein, Ives, Q. Jones, S. Joplin, Kern, Porter, Reich, Rodgers, and Strayhorn, among others—who shaped a variety of American idioms, as well as the playing, at times, of these very 25 (+5) (+1) performers. Nor does this list necessarily contain the blogger’s personal favorites, such as the soprano saxophone jazz-man, Steve Lacy, for instance, who may have been a great musician, but whose greatness may have derived from the importance (and greatness) before him, of Thelonious Monk. This gathering of artists ends circa 1970, a point by which every musician contained herein had demonstrated his or her indispensable value to American music, but leaves off, more or less, before other acts—Captain Beefheart, Sonic Youth, Michael Jackson, Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, et al.—would push into, stagger, and re-ramify the vessels of music and musical commerce. The writer Michael Ondaatje fantasized about the psychological undoing of legendary (and unrecorded, hardly celebrated) New Orleans trumpeter, Buddy Bolden, in his novel, Coming Through Slaughter, but Bolden’s contribution may have been to inspire a very young Louis Armstrong, ‘round about nineteen ought seven, who may have been, himself, offering brassy announcements on his cornet, in the same streets, as part of a job riding atop a junk cart. Undoubtedly, there have been numerous other isolations and obscurities in the development of American music—Appalachian banjo pickers, coal mine protest songs, funeral marches, marches, fife and drum corps, and migrant jug bands are just a few that come to mind—but we should offer thanks for the collective energy that has led us toward these 25 (+5) (+1) important musicians, in A, B, C order:

(Top 25)

Louis Armstrong
James Brown
Johnny Cash
Ray Charles
Ornette Coleman
John Coltrane
Bing Crosby
Miles Davis
Fats Domino
Bob Dylan
Duke Ellington
Dizzy Gillespie
Woody Guthrie
Jimi Hendrix
Billie Holiday
Robert Johnson
Thelonious Monk
Muddy Waters
Charlie Parker
Elvis Presley
Frank Sinatra
Bessie Smith
John Philip Sousa
Velvet Underground
Hank Williams


Count Basie
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
Coleman Hawkins
Sonny Rollins
Lester Young

(+ 1 Special Mention)

Roy Brown, for “Rockin’ at Midnight.” [For more on Roy Brown, and other musicians like him, please see the Jump Blues post.]


LAudaP said...

Wow, well, I think that, regardless of the final list's constituents, the criteria here are hard to argue with, and what's more, really lucidly and cogently put. I agree that skill is sort of an irrelevant criteria for judgment of "importance" or "greatness"--foremost is that an artist produces a cultural offering that, at some point, simply could not be ignored. Stopping at 1970 is also a good idea keeping in mind the theory that, in order for such grand pronouncements to be made about an artist/work/movement/idiom/etc., sufficient *time* must have elapsed. Nice piece of writing man, you the shit!

Geopoulos said...

A good list, Dan. Nice to see you taking time away from the GOP nomination battle. Who do you support -- Baseball Mitt or Gingivitis or Slick Rick?


Special A&P -- I appreciate your kind words, and agree with your thinking, there, The, The Goose. A 1970 to present list would be difficult, but do-able. I'm not the man for that, sadly, as I really don't know enough about them years in American tunes. But stopping at 1970 had other advantages, too -- allowed me to focus on the jazz musicians, as jazz is the backbone of, virtually, everything. ---------------------------------------BA


Ah, CheeseWhizOpoulos -- swooping in for some more punishment? Actually, man, I've been thinking of you -- how there could be an amusement park -- SixFlagsOpoulos -- that catered to your needs. One ride would be called The Scandal. Another would be called I Bail on Bill. A third would be called The Backstabber. Next, one could ride Careerism of the Former Aide. Throw in My Role in the Cataclysm and All I Want to Do Is Profit -- and that would be a cogent retelling of your professional life, in amusement park rides. Happy sledding, DoucheBagOpoulos. -------------------------------------------------------------BA

Anonymous said...

you listen to all this old time music. you should drink some old time lemonaid. no typos! geeNUH


lemonaid is a typo! it's not like first aid -- it's an "ade". ah, the same way you *wouldn't* write firstade, you must write lemonade, because an "ade" requires the aid of the lemon, whereas and "aid" requires the ade of the first. got it? good. ------------------------------------------------------ba


Joe Thompson, a musician who led African American string bands, died recently at the age of 93. This obituary sheds light on his obscure genre:


Michael Harper said...

I think Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, should be on that list also.


Hi Michael, thanks for your comment. Leadbelly is well revered at Blood And Gutstein. It's possible in a revised list that I'd be able to include him. -------B.A.