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It’s Oriental Week

April 11, 2010

The Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawk Orchestra in 1923, from http://www.redhotjazz.com. Click on the picture to enlarge it.

Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawk Orchestra
Oriental Love Dreams

Recorded in 1923

“Oriental” is a term that has subtly shifted its English meaning over the past century. Americans at least think of it as a slightly disparaging term for people and things from East Asia. But in the first half of the twentieth century, “oriental”—especially in music—referred to anything from Turkey on east, and more commonly attached itself to things Arabian than to the Far East.

“Oriental” music was, of course, no more oriental than Theda Bara. It was a bag of stylistic tricks meant to evoke the mysterious east to Western ears: chromatic phrases, repeated rhythmic figures, tom-toms, and maybe an oboe if your saxophone player had one sitting around.

Joe Sanders’ arrangement of “Oriental Love Dreams” (“…that take me back to Araby”) uses most of these tricks, but sparingly. Sanders was one of the best arrangers of the 1920s, and he had too much taste to slather on the pseudo-oriental effects.

Carleton Coon and Joe Sanders had one of the first bands to gain a national audience through the radio. In the old days of few stations and strong signals, an AM radio station in the middle of the country could be heard everywhere:

From coast to coast and back again,
You can hear that syncopated strain,

as they sang in “Nighthawk Blues.”

The story of their meeting sounds like a scene from a bad Hollywood bio-musical: Sanders was in a music store, playing and singing a song he was trying out, when Coon wandered in and started harmonizing behind him. They actually had quite different voices: Sanders was a classically trained baritone who, long after the Jazz Age was over, had a second career in the Kansas City Opera; Coon was more a self-taught type whose thin tenor voice worked well for the lighter songs. But together they were a perfect match, and they had a well-deserved reputation as “the best singers in jazz.” On this record they almost sound like one man singing with two voices.

The Coon-Sanders band was one of the hottest and most distinctive of the 1920s, and there is still a small but rabid cult of fans, none of whom are old enough to have heard the band in person. This is not one of their best records, but it introduces the theme of the week so perfectly that it was an obvious choice. We’ll hear more from this group in the future.

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