Bessie Smith

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For my money, Bessie was one of the three great voices of jazz, along with Billie Holliday and Dinah Washington (none of whom made it past their 40s). When choosing between the many cheap compilations available, look out for the following tracks: ‘Empty Bed Blues’, ‘Gimme a Pigfoot’, ‘Do your Duty’, and especially ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’. On this last track, an Irving Berlin song from 1911 which also inspired a great version by Al Jolson, the intensity reaches the brink of what is possible. But on the last chorus, on the words ‘played in ragtime’, Bessie goes over the brink and you hear the roar of jazz in its purest form; you sometimes hear the same thing in Albert Ayler. These are undeniably archaic sounding recordings from the 1920s and 30s, but you soon get over that and start to really hear Bessie; reading a book about this very wild woman adds to the experience.