A fascinating way to follow the evolution of Jazz, is to trace it using a single composition. Utilizing a firmly established member of the canon, one can hear how a composition is adapted and interpreted throughout various decades. To do this, it greatly helps that the piece be very well known, something along the lines of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”. “King Porter Stomp”, Jelly Roll Morton’s most famous composition, provides an exceptional avenue to tracing the course of the music.
Jelly Roll Morton stated that he composed his most enduring tune in (about) 1905. He would have been 16 at the most in 1905 and as he did not record the piece until 1923, nor copyright it until the following year, I doubt that it actually goes back that far – but it is a Jazz tune born out of the Ragtime tradition. It is multi-thematic; including such key Ragtime hallmarks as an interlude, and trio section. But unlike Ragtime, is full of blue-notes, walking bass lines, and other variations in the left hand, and the famous final “Stomp” strain.
“King Porter Stomp” makes its first appearance on Morton’s July 17, 1923 recording for Gennett. It’s fitting that Morton chose “King Porter” for his first solo record session (and only his second ever). All of his ideas were finally committed to shellac, to be preserved, in a way which sheet music could hardly suggest. It’s pure Morton from the outset; swinging, full of improvisation, riffs, and his characteristic “orchestral” approach, implying the sound of a whole band on only eighty-eight keys.
It was this aspect of the tune, which Benny Goodman, via Fletcher Henderson, found most appealing. In 1935 Goodman recorded Henderson’s groundbreaking arrangement. Written three years earlier, Henderson took Morton’s conception and streamlined it, removing the “Ragtimey” second minor strain, expanded the trio section for extensive improvisation, and really played up the final “stomp” strain with a building series of riffs. Recorded July 1st, it swings like mad, featuring extensive solos from Goodman, and trumpeter Bunny Berigan. All of this combined to produce arguably the finest Swing Era recording of the composition. (Which says quite a lot considering it was one of the most recorded pieces of that period).
In 1958, many years after the Swing Era had come to a close, the incomparable Gil Evans revisited “King Porter Stomp” for his album New Bottles, Old Wine. Arranged for a big band, including Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley (the soloist on the album), Bill Barber, Chuck Wayne, and Ernie Royal, it’s a tour de-force of Evans’ genius. The orchestra itself features his use of Claude Thornhill’s lush brash approach that added French Horn and Tuba. The overall pacing follows the Goodman-Henderson model, opening with Adderley soloing, but then Evans re-inserts the second minor strain! This moves into the trio section, with more fetching solo work from Adderley, alternating with ensemble passages, and culminates with the orchestral stomp section.
Perhaps the most fascinating treatment of “King Porter Stomp,” came from the remarkable Sun Ra. Ra’s eclectic approach to music warranted the inclusion of everything from Morton, and Ellington, to Jerome Kern, and his own compositions. Heard on the album Sunrise in Different Dimensions (1980), Ra’s treatment of “King Porter,” again, follows the Goodman-Henderson model, but his orchestra handles it with delightful abandon. The band solos with remarkable spirit, forsaking precision for a most over-the-top delivery.
These versions of “King Porter” allow the changes in orchestra Jazz to be heard with a common thread. Each of these approaches also attests not only to Morton’s genius, and that of its various executors but to a wider concept as well: That “King Porter Stomp’s” enduring popularity lies in its adaptability to any number of stylistic approaches, musicians affinity towards soloing upon it, and arrangers delight in making it their own. All of this combines to make the composition one that is eminently satisfying to the performer and the audience; a most remarkable feat.
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]