As with its companion piece, this second volume of early Jamaican music shows just how integral a role jazz and R&B played in shaping what would become the island nation’s dominant form of popular music in the second half of the 20th Century.
For an island nation which, at the time of these recordings boasted a population of under two million, Jamaica produced an almost unprecedented number of singles from artists both known and woefully obscure. Despite only a handful of studios to choose from, each eventually establishing their own unique style, an impressive amount of music resounded from the island. While it would be several decades before it reached a broader audience, these early recordings serve as a vital document in the evolution of what would become reggae, ska and rocksteady. And there was no one bigger in the establishment of the sound of Jamaica than Coxsone Dodd and his famed Studio One.
Organized roughly chronologically, Coxsone’s Music 2: The Sound of Young Jamaica – More Early Cuts from the Vaults of Studio One 1959-63 shows the massive impact early R&B had on the young Jamaican musicians. The compilation’s first dozen tracks or so are virtually indistinguishable from those put out by regional R&B and soul labels around the same time. The trademark lilting rhythm was still nearly a decade away when these songs were cut and thus carry a much straighter, almost swung rhythm not usually associated with Jamaican music.
Both Owen Gray’s “Get Drunk” and Clancy Eccles’ “More Proof” are straight jump blues tunes that could’ve just as easily originated in Chicago, St. Louis or Detroit as Kingston. And given its proximity to the Crescent City and its wealth of music, it’s not surprising to hear echoes of zydeco in Monty & the Cyclones “Dog It.” And, as legend has it, it was this same music emanating from American shores that reached the ears of those who would become the progenitors of reggae, the rhythms slowed and warped as a result of the oppressive heat for which the island was known.
Saxophonist Tommy McCook and the Skatalites, a group that would come to play a prominent role in instrumental ska – not to mention serving as backing group on a number of tracks cut at Studio One – here deliver a bit of modern jazz that sounds as though it was phoned in from the West Coast of the U.S. It’s a jarring juxtaposition within the context of the largely R&B-influenced collection made all the more so when placed alongside McCook’s later work. Similarly, his recording of “Away From You” is straight West Coast Jazz replete with smooth sax lines, nuanced trumpet phrasing and a gently propulsive rhythm section.
Oddly, the recognizable rhythms of what would become reggae and ska first surface here on Clue J & His Blues Blasters’ slightly jazzy take on “Swanee River” (here rechristened “Swanee River Rock”). Largely in keeping with the preceding tracks, the noticeable rhythmic difference is in the syncopated rhythm guitar and its heavy emphasis on the off beats to generate the almost broken swing feel of reggae.
More than anything, these early recordings show just how integral a role R&B played in the development of modern Jamaican music. Much in the same way the blues were appropriated to become jazz, early R&B both sonically and texturally served as the basic building blocks for ska, reggae, rocksteady and all points in between. It’s in these subtle variations – in this case rhythmic – that a new style of music comes into being. To hear the genesis with knowledge of the final outcome is nothing less than thrilling, the sound gradually morphing into something new and different yet still retaining a familiarity that helped is reach a broader audience in the wake of reggae superstars like Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals and the universally recognized Bob Marley. The latter is represented here with “Habits,” an early recording with the Wailers that helps show just how far the music, particularly Marley’s, progressed in the intervening decade.
For those enamored of the island’s rich musical history, this collection and its preceding installment serve as the building blocks on which an entire genre was erected. Hearing its genesis is akin to exploring the early roots of rock and roll, jazz and the blues. While perhaps not carrying the universal weightiness of these three pillars of modern popular music, the music of Jamaica has inarguably left an indelible mark on the musical landscape. To understand where it came from aids all the more in the appreciation for where it ended up. These first tentative steps out of the shadow of American jazz and R&B represent the beginnings of what would become a strong, universally resonant cultural identity.