Jazz and the unlikely ukulele

July 21, 2017

There are hundreds of different musical instruments in existence, but how many are used in jazz? Apart from trumpet and saxophone, trombone and piano, drums and guitar, clarinet and bass, how many others are there? Not many. Well, no doubt anyone reading this will quickly compile a list, maybe a lengthy list, but mostly these will be instruments few jazz musicians play, some maybe playing them only as a second instrument. Those musicians who do play instruments from outside that small familiar group sometimes attract the (perhaps surprised) appreciation of fans. Consider, for example, the unfairly-maligned ukulele, a delightful instrument that has been in my mind recently, thanks to the reissue of almost forgotten recordings from the late 1950s. lyle ritzThis is Lyle Ritz Plays Jazz Ukulele (Fresh Sound FSR-CD 810), which is reviewed at length by Ian Lomax in the June 2017 issue of Jazz Journal. The music heard on this album vividly demonstrates that Ritz (1930-2017) was a very skillful instrumentalist and an imaginative improviser. In his review, Lomax mentions other, more recent players of the instrument: Jake Shimabukuro, Israel Kama-kawiwoole and Paul Hemmings. To this short list, I would definitely add Chuck Morgan, a gifted jazz artist and in particular his work with singer Janet Seidel. My review of their album Moon Of Manakoora (LaBrava LB0068), can be found here. I also wrote about the ukulele in a Guest Editorial in Jazz Journal in early 2006, which includes in part an explanation of the instrument’s origins.

“. . . The ukulele, which in its original form looks like an acoustic guitar, is smaller than but structurally similar to the guitar. It has only four strings, something that is not as restricting as might be thought; many early jazz and especially blues guitarists tended to use only four of the available six strings. The similarities between ukulele and guitar are not coincidental; although claims are laid for the guitar’s origins being on the Indian sub-continent, both instruments developed significantly and in a form recognizable today on the Iberian Peninsular. This was probably in Portugal where a four-string instrument, similar in size to the braguinha but tuned like a rajão, became popular and was later taken by Portuguese sailors and immigrants to the Hawaiian Islands, where it was given the onomatopoetically coined name by which we know it today. Aurally, the ukulele is very close to the guitar but given its physical dimensions has a lighter, more delicate and very attractive sound. . .”ukulelerose

Because those of you in the USA might well think better of the ukulele than those in the UK, perhaps I should expand upon my description of the instrument as being unfairly-maligned.

This is mainly because of George Formby (1904-1961), a hugely popular British music hall performer who was at the height of his fame in the 1930s and 1940s. In addition to playing to packed houses all across the country, he made many very successful records, starred in more than twenty popular films, and in the 1950s played the lead in London’s West End in the stage musical Zip Goes A Million (adapted from George Barr McCutcheon’s novel, Brewster’s Millions). At the height of his fame, Formby was one of the UK’s two highest-paid showbiz performers (the other was Gracie Fields). Many years after his death, Formby’s popularity returned in part thanks to the entertainer Alan Randall (1934-2005). Early in his career, Randall played vibraphone and piano in jazz groups (he also played drums, trumpet and trombone), working throughout the UK and also touring the USA, including appearing in Las Vegas, and a earning favorable review in The New Yorker: “One of the World’s best musical acts”. 81U3G3aunwL._SL1394_It was his impersonation of Formby, though, that boosted his popularity and this occupied most of his late career and unfortunately shaded his considerable instrumental talent. Randall also co-wrote (with Vince Powell) and starred in Turned Out Nice Again, a stage musical based on Formby’s life.

So, what has all this to do with the ukulele? When Formby sang his comic songs, among them Leaning On A Lamppost, Chinese Laundry Blues, When I’m Cleaning Windows and Auntie Maggie’s Remedy, he accompanied himself on what he referred to as his ‘little ukulele’. In fact, this instrument was not a ukulele but a Gibson UB3 banjolele, a hybrid instrument that is rather like an enlarged version of the banjo. Formby’s constant references to his ‘little ukulele’ are exemplified in the song With My Little Ukulele In My Hand, although as everyone over a certain age knows, this title should not be taken literally. The lyrics of songs sung by music hall artists are rich in double entendres, quite a lot of them making even the raunchiest of blues lyrics seem mild in comparison. When George Formby sang that particular song, both he and his audience knew that whatever he might have in his hand it was not a musical instrument. Unfortunately, in the UK mention of the ukulele brings to mind Formby and his banjolele, which is decidedly un-jazzlike, and as a consequence of this the ukulele and those who play and enjoy hearing this very musical instrument are the losers. The ukulele, which is the same shape as guitar but about the size of a violin, has a softer sound than the guitar and does not have the same resonance. Try hearing Lyle Ritz or Chuck Morgan and you will hear what I mean. You will also hear some very good jazz.


Ukulele image by Dreamstime.


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