Blues in the Dungeon

We sold out of the Record Store Day™ Black Friday releases quickly yesterday and returned to the normal business of albums that people actually want to hear, rather than re-sell online. We thankfully don’t have to hear from the Record Store Day™ mafia again until April.

This year’s list of un-necessary reissues contained a rare interesting release — a 7″ record featuring both sides of the 1946 single by Wynonie Harris that has gone down in history as the first appearance of Sun Ra. “Dig This Boogie” was distinguished by the son of Saturn’s boogie woogie style, but the single has been out of print for more nearly eighty years.

Hearing the earliest recorded document of Sun Ra’s time on our Earth inspired us to look into other pre-Arkestra recordings. One of the things we learned from the Wikipedia page about Sun Ra was that he performed in an un-recorded trio with Coleman Hawkins and Stuff Smith in 1948. The same page says that a home recording of Ra and Smith appears on Sun Sound Pleasure, and we went digging through our disorganized record collection for that album.

Sun Sound Pleasure is a unique Sun Ra record owing to its selection of standards instead of Ra originals, but sadly our copy does not include their recording of the 30s ballad, “Deep Purple,” recorded on an early paper-tape machine. The album is one of many albums originally issued on El Saturn, the label run by Ra and Alton Abraham, which is now in print after decades in obscurity. As Sun Ra’s recordings have become more widely available, his audience has grown.

The violinist known as Stuff Smith was born Hezekiah Smith in 1909, making him about five years the senior of Sun Ra, if we are to believe the biographical data regarding the self-proclaimed “Sun One.” Smith was a successful swing-era soloist and songwriter, and he hardly embraced bebop although he performed with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Though lesser known than Stéphane Grapelli or Jean-Luc Ponty, Smith was a pioneering jazz violinist. He was the first to explore amplified effects and his style was more in line with the solos of swing artists who transitioned to the modern era such as Coleman Hawkins. We think of him as second only to Joe Venut as a contemporary, and second only to Billy Bang as the greatest jazz performer on the violin.

On the 1965 session reissued on this budget-label album, Smith is joined by Grapelli who is a more conventional soloist. Smith is featured as a vocalist on “Blues in the Dungeon,” a tune which we believe Sun Ra must have enjoyed.


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