Popular music in the United States before the emergence of rock and roll in the mid 1950s is often characterized as being bland and sentimental, devoid of drive and real emotional content. Although that might well be a true description of much of the ‘white’ pop that dominated the airwaves and mainstream record stores, it certainly was not true of the rapidly diversifying independent radio stations, small record companies who in turn supplied many of the singles that filled regional jukeboxes. In other words, if you chose to turn your ears away from the beaten path, you would hear a very different animal.
One of those was black music. This is a far broader definition that the simple ‘rhythm & blues’ identifier that has become synonymous with pre-rock and roll black music. Music ranging from that with little differed from mainstream white pop (Nat King Cole being a prime exponenent) to the earthiest of electric blues (Muddy Waters & Howlin’ Wolf) was part of this continuum. Sophisticated to primitive, it was all there. All that tied it together was that it was recorded by and marketed to African-Americans with little thought that it had any wider import.
One of the most interesting black artists of this time is Earl Bostic, not least because all of the above traits can be found in his recordings. An extremely accomplished jazz saxophonist who passed through Lionel Hampton’s band among others, Bostic could be sweet or sour with equal effect. No song better represents this than what is his most famous cut, “Flamingo”.
A mid-tempo jazz ballad with a steady swing rhythm, smooth vibraphone chordal accompaniment, and a beguiling melody – none of this would matter were it not for Bostic’s completely captivating saxophone solo that combines an extraordinary degree of r&b roughness (as pioneered by Illinois Jacquet) into a beautifully paced solo on the alto saxophone. The sound is truly evocative, a window into an another world.