In 1938, jazz aficionado/promoter/producer John Hammond, Sr. had an idea for a visionary concert. This vision would take fruition as a presentation known as "From Spirituals to Swing," bringing together the connected history of African-American music running from gospel to blues to jazz.
High-brow concerts of what was considered distinctly non-high-brow music were still a relatively new concept. Benny Goodman's landmark debut at Carnegie Hall had been only a few months earlier, and Hammond planned on throwing his shindig in the same confines. But once he put the plan into motion, he met resistance from a number of sources, most of whom objected to the idea of white and black musicians appearing on the same stage. Hammond, ever resourceful, got underwriting from a New York leftist paper and threw the first "From Spirituals to Swing" concert -- complete with the concert-hall debut of the Count Basie Orchestra -- in December 1938. The response was overwhelming, and a second concert was held in the same place a year later.
Knowing that Carnegie Hall also housed recording facilities that Benny Goodman had used to document his stand at the hall, Hammond recorded both concerts on acetate discs. In the 1950s, he had them transferred to magnetic tape, and by the end of that decade he struck a deal with Vanguard Records to release some of the performances as a two-record set. In 1987, this set was issued on compact disc.
Now, some 60 years after the event, comes this sumptuous three-disc box set, From Spirituals to Swing: Carnegie Hall Concerts, 1938-1939 [3-CD Set] For the first time, all the known extant recordings from those concerts (including 23 previously unreleased tracks) have been issued, along with some surprises. Those surprises come in the form of a half-dozen studio performances with members of the Count Basie band and vocalist Helen Humes that were interspersed into the live recordings. To further compound matters, Hammond went into a studio in 1959 and cut new introductions for them, which were sped up to make him sound younger! Audio chicanery aside, these sides are included, as they were a part of the original package and part of Hammond's original vision. But the tracks themselves (now fortified with the rest of the unreleased studio material) are inspired playing and singing, and certainly warrant inclusion, no matter what audio sleight-of-hand brought them there in the first place.
As for the rest of the set, the five-star rating given above really is insufficient in telling the tale of just how cool this box and this music really are. The sound is a marked improvement over even the previous two-CD set, and the addition of the unreleased material pushes this release into the regions of "essential." Jazz just doesn't get much more exciting than this: Here's the Count Basie band with Lester Young, Jo Jones, Herschel Evans, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Freddie Green, and Walter Page playing at the absolute top of their game, defining what swing music and true jazz were all about. Here's the earliest version of the Benny Goodman Sextet (with secret weapon Arthur Bernstein on string bass) blasting its way through a five-song set that's every bit as astonishing as the trio's and quartet's showings at Goodman's 1938 concert. Here are Charlie Christian and Lester Young jamming together, the New Orleans Feetwarmers with Sidney Bechet and Tommy Ladnier playing three tunes that literally lift the audience members out of their seats, and boogie woogie practitioners Meade "Lux" Lewis, Pete Johnson, and Albert Ammons with Big Joe Turner, all duking it out at 100 miles per hour.
In the midst of all of this are exemplary performances from Big Bill Broonzy, blues harmonica ace Sonny Terry, stride pianist James P. Johnson, gospel from the Golden Gate Quartet, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mitchell's Christian Singers, and jazzy blues singing from Ida Cox, Helen Humes, and Jimmy Rushing.
Hammond had the good taste to book nothing but the best (the reproduction of the original program alludes to the fact that missing in action due to their recent demise were Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson, one of whose recordings was actually played on-stage at the first concert) and the lineup on this box set is the cream of the jazz and African-American experience at that time. People with an interest in American music, jazz or otherwise, are heartily encouraged to add this set to their collection.