Something To Say In Four Sides: Paul Biese And His Novelty Orchestra

Bandleader Paul Biese enjoyed critical as well as popular acclaim in Jazz Age Chicago and is now known to only the most diehard period aficionados. Such is life for many popular musicians. Yet Biese’s records provide an insightful, powerfully individual snapshot of the transition from popular music of the teens to jazz’s infiltration into the mainstream during the twenties.

The aptly-titled “Fast Asleep In Poppy Land” is heroin-speed instrumental ragtime, alluding to the cacophonous collective interplay of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, only without much improvisation and a hard-edged, urban take on the “nut jazz” no doubt all around Biese and his sidemen. Biese’s tenor saxophone moans on top of, through and all over the band, probably as much due to his vicinity to the recording horn as his tone and billing (he was the leader, after all):

Trumpeter Harry “Rags” Vrooman is especially interesting. He never plays a traditional “Dixieland” lead trumpet role, instead eliding the tune proper into a wailing, three-note ascending phrase alongside Biese, or playing double-time obbligato on “Bo-La-Bo” and decoration behind (!) Lloyd Barber’s trombone (!) for “Yellow Dog Blues”:


Vrooman’s sound, especially on “Dardanella,” hint at his possibly having heard the lift that New Orleans import Freddie Keppard gave bands with a couple of well-placed blasts:

Biese’s “Dardanella,” with Vrooman blasting out of the familiar ostinato and the leader booting like he’d be right at home in a rhythm and blues combo thirty years later, makes Ben Selvin’s peppy multi-million selling record of the tune seem unequivocally tame. Regional styles, bouncy but somewhat buttoned-up New York versus hardboiled Chicago, can already be detected at this point.

Like their Chicago counterparts in Isham Jones’s band, there’s a sense of experimentation with instrumental roles and small group textures in Biese’s group. The leader tries out different saxophone registers for varied effects. The rattle and clang of Lou Goldwasser’s rag-a-jazz drumming and Arnold Johnson’s rapid-fire piano add ferocious drive as well as color. Ralph Williams’s banjo, which jazz historian Mark Berresford has described as a typically Chicagoan blend of melody and rhythm, even adds some zither-like tremolos for a percussive effect on “Yellow Dog Blues.”

Contemporary music history taxonomy may have a hard time pigeonholing Biese’s music, and it’s easy to simply write it off “not jazz,” but its sheer energy, confidence and personality reveal more than just transitional commercial efforts. This was a band with its own voice, easy to dance to, fascinating to listen to and frustratingly absent from most reissues.Oakland Tribune on May 15, 1924

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Blast With The Past: Bobby Donaldson’s “Tribute” To Twenties Jazz

The twenties can now seem very far away, yet “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top,” from a session led by Bobby Donaldson for the Savoy label back in 1958, might make them feel as distant as the Pleistocene era. The arrangement features a deliberate, downright stereotypical “Dixieland” instrumentation and approach, with guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli plucking a banjo, Al Lucas swapping his string bass for tuba and drummer Donaldson tapping on rims. Rex Stewart and Emmett Berry even get to whinny through their horns on the introduction and coda, a throwback to the onomatopoeic “nut jazz” of the teens.

Ostensibly a feature for Buster Bailey, it all makes for a wickedly nostalgic trip back to jazz’s formative years that must have given the notoriously smartass clarinetist a giggle. He puffs away, tone smooth to a point well beyond soggy, delivering the first chorus with a satirical straightforwardness before sailing into more honest improvisation in the second one.

bdBailey was the eldest member of the group, four years older than trombonist Vic Dickenson and twenty-four years Pizzarelli’s senior, yet he wasn’t the only one to remember actually playing in bands where banjos and tuba were not just present but very effective. Playing with the likes of June Cole, Ralph Escudero and the indomitable Cyrus St. Clair, Bailey had felt the heft and punch of a gifted tuba player. Lucas seems to have only ever played tuba on record for this tune and a lone “Caravan” from an Illinois Jacquet date ten years later. To Lucas’s credit, his stubbornly ponderous roots and fifths and potbellied tone add their own ambience. Whether or not he was a “good” tubaist or even liked the instrument, he also stays in tune and on the beat, remaining a musician even as he sticks to making an effect.

Bucky Pizzarelli acts the part of a “commercial” (as in, more likely to backs jingles than jam sessions) banjoist with the Peter Sellers-like conviction, using rhythmic stiltedness and thin voicings to set the stage but never get in the way. It’s easy to imagine full-time rhythm banjoists such as Johnny St. Cyr or Tommy Fellini laughing along with Pizzarelli, or wry humorist Eddie Condon doing his own imitation. Whether Donaldson’s penetrating, robotic rim clicking is deliberate or not, it’s far removed from the what Frank Snyder did for New Orleans Rhythm Kings in the twenties or the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s Tony Sbarbaro accomplished well into the fifties.

It’s all so hokey that it turns into exaggeration without mockery, satire that reminds of better execution but doesn’t throw out the source material. Thirty years can also seem like a long time, but it was short enough for at least Bailey, Dickenson and Stewart to remember these instruments, ideas and best practitioners still in the process of being declared passé. There’s no way to tell what any of these musicians thought, but their playing makes one very insightful joke.

Tagged , , , , ,

Of Bix And Bernie: Hot Jazz In Davenport

Bernie Schultz and His Crescent Orchestra, 1926, WOC studio of Davenport, Iowa (left to right: Johnny Day, Vic Carlson, George Byron Webb, Eddie Anderson, Bernie Schultz, Al Waffle, Wayne Rohlf, Omar Hoagland, Art Wunder, Sandy Ross)

Bernie Schultz and His Crescent Orchestra, 1926, WOC studio of Davenport, Iowa (left to right: Johnny Day, Vic Carlson, George Byron Webb, Eddie Anderson, Bernie Schultz, Al Waffle, Wayne Rohlf, Omar Hoagland, Art Wunder, Sandy Ross)

Davenport, IA paid more than its debt to jazz by birthing one of its earliest and greatest artists, yet Bernie Schultz And His Crescent Orchestra shows there was more to Davenport than Bix Beiderbecke, more to “early jazz” than the geography covered in a jazz history seminar:

It’s hardly news that jazz was popping up all over the country during the twenties (right?) and the internet has cataloged so much of it that I’m unsure anyone will be surprised by this red-hot, thoroughly original music. Still, drummer Johnny Day getting to solo on “Sweet Violets” and “Sweetheart Of Sigma Chi (two sides, in 1927!), building up plenty of horizontal momentum while varying his sounds between drum heads and cymbals is worth at least one more hearing. Ditto for Harry LaRue’s dips into plump, coppery middle and lower registers, and clarinetist/alto saxophonist Eddie Anderson moving all over his horns like he just got a new toy.

Beyond the sheer joy of these sides or the novelty of hearing jazz in a city without urban sprawl, Schultz’s jazz demonstrates a lot of different musical influences at work, not all of which are likely to pop up in a Ken Burns documentary. LaRue’s playing, especially on “Hold Everything,” shows he was probably listening to that other cornetist from Davenport, if not absorbing his sense of construction and phrasing. The glee club vocals (a beautifully ironic foil to the solos), staccato tuba and ukulele-like banjo strums add a touch of “ra-ra, local college and/or sports team” pep with a harder edge. Bandleader and saxophonist Schultz led the band at Saint Ambrose University and wrote a few school songs, begging questions about the relationship between varsity bands and jazz in the Midwest (maybe we’ll get there after finding those pesky Bolden cylinders). The country fiddle and plucking banjo on “Hold Everything” just add to the stew.

DavenportThe Schultz band likely never made it (or possibly wanted to get to) New York City and its playing is refreshingly distant from New Orleans. The Crescent Orchestra did have a regular radio show with a local station and gigged a two-hundred-mile the territory around Davenport. According to former sideman Wayne Rohlf via Dick Raichelson’s liner notes to the LP A Bag of Sleepers – Volume 3 (Arcadia 2005), the band also traveled as far as Buffalo, NY and Erie, Canada, later reorganizing under Day’s leadership after Schultz’s departure. Rohlf explains that, after at least one abortive attempt at studying medicine in favor of music, Schultz ended up at George Washington University School of Medicine, practicing in Virginia and leaving just seven sides under his name ever issued on record. Saxophonist and historian Paul Lindemeyer notes that his band was actually one of a handful of Iowa-based units to record before World War II.

Based on the ferocious drive and reliance on improvisation heard on its records, the Schultz band must have been a revelation live. It also seemed to have been at least as curious and galvanized by jazz as any big city band. Schultz and his Crescent Orchestra may not have changed jazz history but it was plenty busy experiencing it, crafting the music towards its own ends and leaving something entirely individual in its modest wake.

Postscript: Bixographer Albert Haim looked into Bernie Schultz and his band’s history and shared his findings on his Bixography forum online.  What was it like to hear his group alongside the Fate Marble band?

Tagged , , , , ,

MARTY NAPOLEON (1921-2015)

Andrew J. Sammut:

I am “reblogging” a beautiful expression of appreciation for the life and music of the recently departed pianist Marty Napoleon.

Napoleon’s long career famously included playing with none other than Louis Armstrong. As if that gig doesn’t already overshadow the actual man behind the keys, I’ll confess that upon hearing this news my thoughts soon went to other players. Marty was the nephew of Original Memphis Five trumpeter and personal fascination Phil Napoleon, part of the first generation of recorded jazz musicians. Clarinetist Buster Bailey, who played alongside Marty Napoleon in both Armstrong and Red Allen’s band, was part of the music from its roots in WC Handy’s band to the rise of the big band via Fletcher Henderson. I couldn’t help but think we are losing not just a man and a musician but a link to an increasingly archaic soundscape.

For a far less selfish eulogy that focuses on the man rather than the sideman, hear (someone that I am proud to call my friend) Michael Steinman…

Originally posted on JAZZ LIVES:

Pianist, singer, composer Marty Napoleon “made the transition” from this earthly world to another one on Monday night, April 27.  His dear friend Geri Goldman Reichgut told me that on his last night on the planet he ate some dessert and listened to music: the signs of what my Irish friends call “a beautiful death.”

I can’t find it in my heart to be too mournful about Marty’s moving out of this earthly realm.  It seems to me that the New Orleanians have the right idea: cry a little at the birth, because that spirit taking corporeal form might have some bumps in this life, and rejoice at the death, because the spirit is free — to ramble the cosmos in the company of other spirits.

I was in conversation with the wonderful pianist Mike Lipskin last night — we sat on a bench in Greenwich Village and lamented that…

View original 199 more words

(Good) Morning, In Four Pieces



Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Requiem For A Sideman

FindAGrave.com has been a valuable asset for researching musicians who don’t warrant mention by John Chilton or Gunther Schuller. This website not only provides important dates, locations and biographical information, but its photo request service uses photographers “in the field” to help fill in the blanks.

That service now gifts a fitting coda to a recent post about reed player and discographical ghost Ben Whitted:2852147_1428815402
Morbid, heartwarming and informative all at once, this headstone encapsulates the bundle of influences and experiences hiding under an “obscure” name. An ex-military musician turned dance band sideman and occasional jazz soloist, Whitted not only witnessed but also participated in several chapters of American popular music. He must have had something (dare we say “unique?”) to say on his instrument, more to offer than matrix numbers and dates alongside the musicians we all know so well. That’s one reason to keep listening.

Tagged , , , ,

The Unbelievable Power Of Pops

It’s hard to argue with genius, not just because of its power but often because it has been granted that status postmortem. It’s harder to even question a (by all accounts) kindhearted and often humble genius like Louis Armstrong. Yet Armstrong’s description of his first experience in a recording studio is either too modest, or this blogger is that obtuse:

The Gennett [record company] people found that they had to put me twenty feet back of the other players [in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band] because my high-register notes were so strong they would not record clearly any closer.

The story of Armstrong’s cornet literally placing him far apart from his contemporaries from the very start of his recorded legacy is easy to believe and still awe-inspiring close to a century later. It symbolizes just another part of his vast toolkit: resplendent tone, melodic flow, technical facility, rhythmic inventiveness, improvisatory imagination, an array of vocal inflections and a sound that could blow off a roof to boot.

Don’t forget gifted second cornetist. Records and ear-witnesses demonstrate Armstrong’s ability to fashion just the right harmony, counterpoint and decoration under and around Oliver’s lead without usurping it. It’s what he was there to do with Oliver, what he had been doing night after night at Chicago’s Lincoln (originally Royal) Gardens. Armstrong was powerful in a number of ways, even when he wasn’t the center of attention.

Which is why the idea of his being unable to tone it down at a record session always left me incredulous. Even if the twenty-three year old Armstrong was simply that nervous before a big recording horn for the first time, he had already played in a variety of settings in his native New Orleans. In addition to parade bands and jazz ensembles, he must have supplied more sedate music for dancers, atmosphere for social events and accompaniment for more than a few singers. It’s also hard to imagine Armstrong standing twenty feet back from the band at their regular gig, or that club patrons would have forgiven his sticking to one loud dynamic.

Armstrong may have (famously) not known what “pp” meant on paper but he must have been familiar with, and capable of, playing softly. In this case, the real power of this genius seems to sabotages its own claims.

Thoughts? Contrary arguments? Brickbats?  A patient smile?  It always seemed to work for the man himself…

louis armstrong

Tagged , , , , ,

Don Murray On Alto Sax?

Here’s a little peek inside of my own listener’s diary, a meandering thought on lit screen sprayed out without attention to prose.

Brian Rust lists Don Murray on baritone saxophone and clarinet for the May 25 and June 28, 1928 sessions Joe Venuti and His New Yorkers. Murray’s baritone gets the lead on “’Tain’t So, Honey, ‘Tain’t So” from the first session (and Okeh’s sound shows off his light tone on the big horn). His clarinet might be filling out the lower harmonies under the flutes on “I Must Be Dreaming” from that session, and it’s likely part of the clarinet section behind Charlie Butterfield’s trombone on the first chorus of “Because My Baby Don’t Mean ‘Maybe’ Now” from the second session.

There are no other audible clarinet or baritone sax solos from these two sessions, yet the alto saxophonist playing the first chorus bridge of “Just Like A Melody Out Of The Sky” on the second date might be Murray. The uneven eighth notes, cutting the first part of the beat short and emphasizing the second part of the beat (similar to a sixteenth-dotted eighth note pattern, the reverse of many attempts to notate swung eighth notes) are similar to Murray’s rhythmic approach. The phrasing is also very “busy” and arpeggiated a la Murray, and alternation between slurred phrases and light but definite tonguing also reminded me of Murray. The bright, open, fat tone is very different from his sound on tenor and baritone saxes but is very similar to his clarinet.

Rust lists Arnold Brilhart and Max Farley on alto saxophone and flute for these sessions, along with Herbert Spencer on tenor saxophone for the first session and Fud Livingston replacing him and doubling clarinet for the second one. Yet Rust also listed Murray as clarinetist, alto saxophonist and baritone saxophonist on “Blue River” with Jean Goldkette, despite Murray clearly playing tenor saxophone. Between doubling, transposing and doctoring, it’s worth viewing the reed assignments in Rust’s testament with a critical eye, or at least using ears to back them up.

Rust’s designated alto men, Brilhart and Farley, were mostly section men. Yet according to Ate Van Delden’s liner notes to the Timeless CD, Brilhart did play a few solos with the Varsity Eight a few years earlier and according to a few posters here on the Bixography forum, Brilhart plays lead alto with Roger Wolfe Kahn’s band. Assuming Brilhart got to solo on his own record date, session, we also have an example of him soloing on “Hello Aloha! How Are You?” Here are a few audio examples:


As opposed to the soloist on “Just Like A Melody Out Of The Sky,” Brilhart’s tone is buttery and centered (more likely to cut and tie together other voices than swell under or over them), his rhythms more evenly delineated.

It’s harder to find examples of Max Farley’s tone for comparison, since he doubled a variety of different instruments other than alto sax and doesn’t seem to have played lead or soloed on any recordings. Yet whoever it is playing alto on the transition immediately following the first chorus, it is clearly a different player than the one on the bridge, presumably the same lead alto in the ensemble behind the altoist on the bridge. It might be Farley on the bridge, but there is a strong resemblance to Murray. Ditto for the possibility of Livingston.

Honestly, just a thought.

Berklee Pierces The Membranophone

wwwDOTcaptainkazooDOTcomSLASHcroonDOTgif

Berklee College of Music celebrated April Fools’ Day today with a funny, well-produced video (which no one paid me to share or endorse) that made the spoon a little fuller for an instrument that already takes a fair amount of shit:

Maybe it’s the squawky timbre, the association with milk-mustached kindergarteners or how comically simple it is to use, but the kazoo makes for an effortless punch line.

Early jazz aficionados may not be laughing as hard. The kazoo was a hit among novelty-crazed listeners in the twenties and appears on many records from The Jazz Age. In hindsight it might be accused of gobbling up time on 78s that could have been put to better use by just about any one else playing just about any other instrument (when it comes to comb or tuba, it’s still a toss-up). It’s easy to imagine purists scratching their heads and pounding their fists at the travesty not just of George Brunies soloing on kazoo rather than trombone, but the fact that those twenty-five seconds of kazoo could have instead gifted us more time with Bix Beiderbecke’s seraphic cornet (fifty seconds if you count alternate takes!):

Most of the music’s original listeners were probably more interested in a good time rather than a profound emotional experience or instrumental exploration, so maybe we can forgive the kazoo, its practitioners and enablers. Judging from California Ramblers drummer Stan King’s energy and comic timing on the instrument, he either didn’t mind it or was simply that much of a professional. The double-kazoo (?)(!) chorus on “Tessie, Stop Teasing Me” is not only a funny little exchange but also another jittery foil to Bill Moore’s tightly muted trumpet:

There’s no way of knowing whether such musical considerations came into play as the Ramblers gave the public what it wanted and seemingly had a very good time earning a paycheck. It’s also unclear whether Jelly Roll Morton included the kazoo on several of his earliest recordings because he liked it or its potential to sell records. My own favorite example of Morton with kazoo (though admittedly that’s not a very competitive category) is “My Gal Sal”:

Buddy Burton hoots and blasts under and between Volly de Faut’s clarinet and Morton accompanies it all with a sensitivity that belies the comic nature of the recording. Come to think of it, no one is phoning it in on this performance. If this was meant as a joke, both de Faut and Morton went pretty far for the sake of a gag. Maybe de Faut and Morton were laughing at the kazoo, or maybe all the musicians on these sides were laughing with it.

Close to a century later, the kazoo is still fun to listen to and laughter is permissible in all but the direst contexts. Yet I can’t help but wonder how we might react to Alfred Bell’s slashing lead and haunting tone if we were hearing him on his customary trumpet rather than this particular member of the membranophone family (and thanks to Berklee for teaching me that term):


Would we be more impressed if the kazoo was harder to play, or if it was actually taught at a conservatory? The kazoo was marketed as the most “democratic” instrument, since anyone could play it, so are we laughing with the kazoo, or at participatory government? What if the instrument had its origins in folk music rather than novelty ephemera, in native traditions rather than the US Patent Office, in animal skins and woodcarving rather than plastic and the assembly line?

There is a lot more to be said about this funny little instrument. Someone should teach a class, or make it part of a curriculum! Oh, right

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Al Weber, All About All The Basses

CareOf_ISBConventionDOTcomAl Weber mostly stuck to tuba on the few recordings he left behind as a sideman with Cass Hagan, Bert Lown and a post-Adrian Rollini (and therefore below most commentators’ radar) edition of the California Ramblers. There’s no explanation for why Weber picked up the string bass on one lone date with the Ramblers, or why he put it away every other time he made a record:

Weber slapping away on the three solo bridges of “Me And The Man In The Moon” is the most prominently “jazzy” aspect of his sound on record (and each bridge spotlighting a different reed is some very smart arranger’s touch). Yet even his plucking behind the band gives the entire side a lift. Weber’s tone is solid, his time secure and his anticipatory attacks are from perfunctory oom-pahs. They’re not the scene-stealing cross accents of Steve Brown or percussive thwacks of Wellman Braud but they are admirable and ear-whetting work. The same goes for Weber’s syncopated pops and jogging accompaniment on the tune’s session mate, “You’re The Cream In The Coffee”:

The transition from tuba to string bass during this period has been widely discussed and debated in all its stages of grey. The only crystal clear development from this period is that several now-unsung sidemen were regularly doubling string, brass and even reed bass. Listening to Weber, Min Leibrook, Joe Tarto, Harry Goodman (yes, even him) and others who never got the historical clout of a Braud, Brown or Pops Foster, it’s also clear that they listened and learned from what was out there. That’s an impressive skillset, more so if it was just par for the course for this era’s bass players. It gives a new meaning to “all in a day’s work” and really defamiliarizes the term “sideman.”

Weber, by the way, was apparently no slouch on any of the instruments listed on his resume. In addition to playing for no less than Sousa himself, Weber’s round sound on tuba contributes to Hagan’s snappy arrangement of “Varsity Drag,” complete with Red Nichols slicing away in solo and ensemble:

and Weber gets a break all to himself on “My Ohio Home,” polishing off some subterranean notes with clarity and control:

Records like these keep me wondering what other sounds are out there, beyond the Smithsonian boxed sets and buried inside discographical footnotes…

Tagged , , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 121 other followers