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Bessie Smith: 'The Essential Bessie Smith'


MURRAY HORWITZ, American Film Institute: That's one of the great voices of the 20th century. The empress of the blues, Bessie Smith. I hesitate to ask, A.B. Spellman, but why should this be in our NPR Basic Jazz Record Library?

A.B. SPELLMAN, National Endowment for the Arts: Because, this is as good a place as any to start your understanding of jazz. The history of jazz instrumentation is that the early New Orleans trumpet players listened to women blues singers, and they learned to sort of phrase like them. And, then the trumpet players influenced the piano players, and the piano players influenced the saxophonists, and so forth.


SPELLMAN: And Bessie Smith is a good example of what the early trumpet players started trying to phrase like.

HORWITZ: And, if you just listen to any track from this two-CD set, and you hear that pure, clarion voice that any trumpet player would kill to have.


SPELLMAN: Bessie Smith is a transitional singer, from the age before and after the microphone. She made it in her own way, before the microphone was available to enhance the presence of the singer on the stage. So, she had that hard projection that could fill up a room quite comfortably, and quite easily. That's why I've always considered Bessie Smith to be brass, unlike Billie Holiday, who came a little bit later, and is reed.


HORWITZ: We think of Bessie Smith as a blues singer, but probably more than a half of the songs on this collection are not strictly speaking 12-measure blues — the classic form. In those days, you had to sing everything. Right?

SPELLMAN: Yes. She did expand her repertoire far beyond the blues. She sang a lot of the Tin Pan Alley songs of the day. Most of them are not included on this collection, but she did have them in her repertoire. But her crowd, and her audience would not let her give up the blues, so that had to be the staple of all of her performances.


HORWITZ: And so, for your NPR Basic Jazz Record Library, we're recommending The Essential Bessie Smith. It's on the Columbia Legacy/Roots & Blues label. For NPR Jazz, I'm Murray Horwitz.

SPELLMAN: And, I'm A.B. Spellman.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A. B. Spellman
Murray Horwitz