The heart of rock and roll is not the beat, but the iconoclasm. Those early, rude sounds in the 1950s shattered a lot more than white middle-class illusions of security; despite the music’s obvious debt to traditional black blues and R and B, some of its harshest criticism came from the jazz community. Suddenly adherents of artists as revolutionary as Charlie Parker found themselves in the unfamiliar role of conservators of tradition and culture, decrying what they saw as a defilement of the sophisticated pop-jazz rhythm and blues of Louis Jordan, Bullmoose Jackson, and others.
The idea that a bunch of youngsters with limited musical ability could burst upon the scene playing music of such crudity and sexual explicitness and create something of value was too much for the rebels of the bebop movement to endure. A novelty record from the 50s that begins with a vicious satire of a sleazy recording executive and his moronic teenage star and culminates in a scene where close-harmony doo-wop groups and an Elvis imitator are machine-gunned to death was being played on Chicago jazz radio by the late Count Bee-Jay as recently as 1981, giving some indication of the depth of passion this issue continues to engender 30 years later.
The single musical element of this revolutionary new sound that’s probably been least recognized was the rock-and-roll saxophone. Guitars and drums were used much as they had been earlier in the blues; all it took was a little goosing up of the energy level, and their adaptation to the new music was complete. The sax, however, underwent a total transformation. It was seldom included in the classic Chicago blues lineup, except for background riffing to give impetus to vocals and guitar solos. In jazz, it had been either a crooning instrument in the hands of master balladeers such as Ben Webster and Lester Young, or a hard-edged shouter of blues-tinged fire, as Coleman Hawkins and, ultimately, Charlie Parker used it. Eventually, John Coltrane and his followers made it the dominant instrument of the visionary black classical music that evolved from postbop in the late 50s and early 60s.
Rock and roll, however, took what had been an instrument of great tonal and emotional subtlety and stripped it to its bare, primal bones; the screaming yakkety-yak sax of early R and B and rock and roll, distorted through cheap amplification and sometimes flailing away at dimly comprehended melody lines, missing as many notes as it hit, epitomized the crude roar of teenage independence the music represented. To sophisticated jazz and blues elders, the sound was a deliberate trashing of everything musical, and was excruciatingly ugly; to the new young audience, it was liberation itself.
Joe Houston is a Los Angeles-based saxophonist who toured for years with vocalist Big Joe Turner, originator of “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” and an artist who spent much of the latter part of his career straddling the jump-blues and rock-and-roll camps of R and B interpretation. Turner was primarily a jazz-blues shouter in the Kansas City tradition, but he was capable of harnessing the exuberant, up-tempo rowdiness of rock and roll to maintain a relevance among young listeners that eluded many of his contemporaries. In Turner’s band, Joe Houston honed both his musical skills and his instinct for rock-and-roll irreverence. Now that he’s on his own, it’s the latter that he showcases.
Houston played a one-night gig at B.L.U.E.S. Etc. last Friday, and from his opening notes he showed that the old rock-and-roll fires burn deep within him. A veteran of the tough audiences on the black rhythm and blues circuit, Houston wastes no time noodling around on stage; he begins his show from the back of the club, screaming bansheelike saxophone war cries through a cordless microphone and slowly stalking through the crowd in the general direction of the bandstand. The first set was somewhat sparsely attended, but Houston poured it on as if he were playing a sold-out opening night at the Apollo; shoulders hunched, veins bulging, eyes jammed shut behind dark glasses, and sweat pouring down his face, he blew to each table and bar stool he passed, slowly building up the energy among the audience and moving in herky-jerky dance steps toward the front. By the time he hit the stage, the room was his.
The music Houston played was the epitome of the primal R and B scream that sent shivers down the spines of middle America and hip jazzmen alike in the 1950s. No subtlety, few musical “ideas” in the usual improvisational sense of the word, little finesse; simply a flat-out wail coupled with vocal exhortations to “get down and party” interspersed between choruses. Houston’s vocals are a raucous fusion of Turner-like timbre and rock-and-roll passion. They provide the ideal counterpart to his never-ending roadhouse saxophone honk, all hip-grinding sexuality and rattling mouthpiece spit.
Beneath the near-manic pitch of the music, however, was plenty of variety to keep things interesting. An untitled instrumental, based on the pattern of Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years,” featured treble flurries from Barrelhouse Chuck’s piano, shimmering like broken glass beneath Houston’s dirty, back-alley saxophone raunch; when Houston took the hint and segued into “How Many More Years,” his voice took on an almost Wolfian intensity. Guitarist Pete Crawford provided solid Chicago-style backing, reminiscent of Jimmy Rogers, as Houston contributed a ragged, screaming sax solo that evoked Wolf’s majestic fury even as it lent a bit of post-50s rock-and-roll jauntiness to the song. All in all, it was the kind of intense, raw interpretation of Wolf that one usually has to travel to the west side to experience.
Houston is obviously most at home with basic blues, R and B, and rock-and-roll standards; his few forays into contemporary funk lacked the drive he summoned effortlessly on up-tempo rockers and the occasional bluesy balled. The band with which Houston was provided–Crawford, Barrelhouse Chuck, bassist Robert Stroger, and drummer Robert Covington–is a versatile aggregation of first-rate Chicago blues musicians, but the instrumentation was not sufficient to provide Houston with the punch he needed to carry him on contemporary material. He needs a fat horn section with balls enough to kick him in the ass when he yakkety-yaks them; the comparatively laid-back Chicago blues backing wasn’t always appropriate to his sassiness and occasional rhythmic unpredictability.
More often than not, however, Houston and the band meshed nicely, although it’s somewhat disquieting to experience a context in which Chicago blues–perennially hailed as one of the most radical influences in contemporary music–sounds suddenly tame. Houston interprets even a moody ballad like T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” in an agonized, tense scream, violating the song’s sophisticated sense of weariness in much the same way as Elmore James transformed “It Hurts Me Too” into a fiery masterpiece in the 1950s. Likewise, the R and B standard “Night Train”–originally the Ellington number “Happy-Go-Lucky Local” composed by Ellington and Jimmy Forrest, not by Houston as he claimed on Friday–was given the full Houston treatment: droning phrases interspersed with honking, spasmodic note clusters laid over the nightclubby backing of the Chicago musicians behind him.
It was on rock-and-roll war-horses like “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and “Stop That Yakkety-Yak” (a hybrid of “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” “Flip, Flop, and Fly,” “Hi-Yo Silver,” and half a dozen other boogie standards that Houston made his own back in the 50s) that Houston really let loose. Moving through the crowd again, starting out slowly and finally breaking into a run as he roared out the lyrics to “Molly” and occasionally stopping for a bit to blow out a few joyously fractured phrases on his horn, Houston captured the full essence of the music: exuberant and anarchistic, smashing against all icons of respectability even as it conveyed its deceptively upbeat party message.
Moments like this showcased the subversive energies of early rock and roll most succinctly. The music of Joe Houston and his joyous band of contemporaries sprang from that heated cauldron of energy where adolescent exuberance met the cynicism and sexuality of the blues. The words to the songs–largely nonsense syllables and phrases thrown together in apparently random fashion–and the cracked scream of the voice shattered the romance and poetry of traditional pop; the ragged wail of the saxophone, still jarring and unsettling after all these years, shattered melody and what had heretofore been considered the basic elements of musicianship and improvisation; even Houston’s own vocal technique, contorting his obviously supple voice into a manic scream, was a way of trashing his own musical personality, of being self-destructive and challenging the final icon of respectability in music, the performer’s own identity.
Despite moments of missed musical communication between Joe and the band, and in the face of a faltering sound system that forced him to both play and sing through the same cordless microphone much of the time, Houston unleased an exuberant, uninhibited spirit that one encounters all too seldom in this era of self-consciously rude, prefabricated postrock rebels. Long after the show, as patrons filed slowly out onto Belmont Avenue and the band packed up to leave, echoes of sweet madness lingered in one’s ears.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.