To The Victor, Columbia, Grey Gull Or Pathe: The JJA Jazz Awards And Early Jazz

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Last Tuesday the Jazz Journalists Association announced the winners of its 2014 Jazz Awards. The JJA presents these awards “as an assertion that informed, professional, independent coverage of jazz across genre is vital to the preservation and promotion of contemporary music.” As for non-contemporary music, the Columbia Legacy album Miles Live in Europe 1969 beat out ECM’s Jack DeJohnette Special Edition boxed set and Mosaic’s Complete Strata Recordings of Clifford Jordan for “Historical Record of the Year.” For some jazz lovers, these young players robbed the likes of Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson and King Oliver.

There is a segment of the jazz community who appreciate and enjoy contemporary artists drawing upon the rich traditions developed in the wake of bop, but whose main interest remains in jazz’s prewar idioms. The JJA Jazz Awards may not seem relevant to moldy figs, big band fanatics and ears that perk up for Bix Beiderbecke over Terence Blanchard. Looking back, postwar artists playing in modern styles take up the bulk of the awards. Yet the Awards have included at least one category for reissued material since the first ballot in 1997, adding the term “Historical” to the category in 2008.

Voting starts with professional members submitting up to three nominees for each category. Finalists are then selected based on the number of votes, and a second round of votes determines the winner in each category. This blogger was not able to find finalists for every year, but past finalists have included Mosaic’s Jimmie Lunceford collection competing next to a winning Miles Davis set, and the same label’s Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions 1935-1946, which lost to Ella Fitzgerald’s Twelve Nights in Hollywood on Verve. This survey does not even account for the large pool of first-round nominees (which, based on the size of the JJA, would probably be an impressive and inundating list to post and sort through).

Past JJA Jazz Award winners have included Columbia Legacy’s Hot Fives and Sevens set in 2001, the same label’s Billie Holiday Columbia 1933-1944 sessions in 2002, its Charlie Christian CD in 2003, BMG Bluebird’s Coleman Hawkins Centennial in 2005 (right next to fellow saxophonist Albert Ayler in the boxed set version of this category) and Duke Ellington’s Complete 1932-40 Brunswick, Columbia and Master Recordings, once again from Mosaic, in 2011. Also noteworthy is the 2010 competition between Armstrong’s Decca set and Mosaic’s Classic Artie Shaw Bluebird and Victor Sessions for Best Liner Notes.

For the JJA, bebop and other languages are spoken here. “Early jazz” has a noticeable, if not overwhelming, presence in these well-known awards. Yet is that presence likely to stay there, and possibly even grow? Unsurprisingly that issue is about more than musical taste or academic debates between traditionalists and progressives. JJA President Howard Mandel very graciously shared some of his insights and thoughts on the matter via email.

CareOfHowardMandelDOTcomAndrew Jon Sammut: The JJA’s 2014 “Historical Record of the Year” award was “for CDs, vinyl or digital recordings recorded at least ten years ago (prior to 2003), issued during calendar year 2013.” What was the JJA’s philosophy behind using such a wide concept of “historical”?

Howard Mandel: The JJA Jazz Awards essentially focus on the past twelve months of jazz activity, but jazz journalists have often (at least since the forties) or perhaps typically (since the seventies) been interested in reissues and music from earlier in history. It’s basically essential to understand the music’s past in order to understand the music’s present, and to listen to the past is often to come to love it, because a lot of the music endures across time, regardless of stylistic differences among the various eras.

AJS: There is also a wide stylistic range within that category. Miles Davis reissues are frequently nominated and frequently win (including in 2014, 2012 and 1997 through 2000) but Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington’s earlier efforts have also been nominated and won. What is it that artists as diverse as Armstrong, Charlie Christian, Davis, Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins and others in this category share?

HM: The artists you mention all have well-established reputations as being icons of the art of jazz. All of them were stars of their day, and with the exception of Christian (who gets extra credit for being the first prominent electric guitar player in jazz, and in almost, with exception maybe T-Bone Walker, any kind of American music) their careers were long. Most of these musicians’ works have remained in print or essentially available since they were first issued. They have been written about a lot, and with the possible exception of Coleman Hawkins or Christian their names are familiar to non-jazz audiences, including editors. So it is often possible to write about these artists for general or jazz publication, if there is something startlingly new about them to report (like an issue of newly discovered or “historic” music).

AJS: So do you think there are other ways that the JJA Jazz Awards could honor historical artists within more specific eras or stylistic idioms?

HM: I’ve been against breaking out the Awards into new categories for specific eras or stylistic idioms. Stylistic idioms: it’s impossible to adequately define and enforce such divisions. Eras: What is the value? Does one consider Vince Giordano‘s recordings with a contemporary band along with original source material from the same era? Who should receive the Awards: the producers of the albums, for making the music available, or heirs of the musicians who made the music? Also, it is my personal feeling that the history of jazz be the province of the historians, and not all jazz journalists are historically minded. In general the organization has the mindset that journalism is about the present not the (receding) past, and that we better mind jazz’s present if we want to ensure it has a future.

AJS: I didn’t see this category listed in 2013. Was that due to lack of submissions, consensus or some other reason(s)?

HM: I think that may have been an unintended error.

AJS: It looks likes this category has undergone some changes over the years. In past years, the award was for “Boxed Set Reissue,” it featured separate categories for “Historical Record/Reissue” and “Historical Boxed Set” and early on it did not even mention the word “historical” for reissue or boxed set categories. What went into rethinking this award?

HM: Each year we are rethinking each category and the overall structure of the Awards. We do not want to have more Awards. The ballot is long and complex enough. If anything, we want to limit the number of Awards. We also want the categories to reflect what’s being issued, and what kinds of excellence are emerging from jazz activities. “Boxed set” clearly pertained to big packages, rather than a single CD that might be of equal significance or pleasure, and so single-album releases were getting overlooked in favor of the big package that attracts more attention to begin with. We wanted to provide a more even playing field.

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I would think that reissues are conceptually synonymous with “historical.” This year the ballot committee discussed whether a recording was “historical” and fit in this category if the majority of the music was recorded as little as three years ago. It was determined that some artists record and then the record doesn’t come out for three or four years, but that doesn’t mean it is “historical.”

AJS: Reviewing past nominees and winners, it seems like prewar jazz is almost entirely represented by reissues on the Mosaic and Columbia Legacy labels, with labels such as Frog, Jazz Oracle, Timeless Historical, Archeophone and others apparently not being mentioned. How would you explain those two labels’ apparent “lock” on early jazz and the absence of other labels with similar missions?

HM: Marketing and promotion by Mosaic and Columbia is far superior to that of the other labels you mention. JJA members may or may not pursue recordings on their own, but they are surely most likely to pay attention to recordings that are sent to them for review, with all attendant press releases and also the (perhaps subconscious) impact of ads that show up in jazz publications they read has an effect, and it also makes a difference if they are pitching a review to an editor, or an editor is commissioning them. That happens far more frequently with Columbia and Mosaic packages than with the other labels mentioned.

AJS: Have those labels with similar missions been represented in the selection process, before the nominees are announced?

HM: Yes, often. The first stage of nominations is an open call: all professional JJA members are invited to submit anything issued in the previous year as a nominee. For the 2014 Awards between a quarter and a third of professional members submitted first round nominating ballots. There are many albums that receive single or perhaps three or four votes. Yet the three albums that have received THE MOST nominations are the ones that advance to being finalists. They are almost always albums that have been released, promoted and marketed by a decently financed and very business-and-media-savvy company.

AJS: How does the JJAZ understand the role and impact of historical music in this process?

HM: I’m writing from my personal point of view, because the JJA as an organization does not have any sort of official take on issues of this sort.

Current jazz is based on earlier jazz. One of the very essences of jazz is to respect the music’s history, original creators and creations, without allowing that respect to deter development but rather to use it as an inspiring stimulant, a creative touchstone. In an era during which post-Modernism seems to be a dominant critical modality, all the history of an art form is as one for purposes of study and derivation of newly produced material. The neoconservative musical attitudes promoted by Wynton Marsalis have also contributed to this notion. Yet “free jazz” never went against “early jazz” (only maybe “square jazz”). As the Art Ensemble motto went, “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future,” except for most jazz journalists it doesn’t have to be “Black” music only; the internationalist embrace has become wider in the past 50 years, too. The digital revolution has also made an even larger amount of historic work much more widely available.

And we simply find we like that music! So it’s with us now, not merely a historical relic. That acceptance of older music may furthermore be a result of the baby boomer generation getting old. Baby boomers are still the bulk of membership of the JJA.

AJS: Do you think there is room for other, lesser-known historical artists to “compete” in this area (provided there is a reissue released during the nomination year)? Could you imagine Chu Berry, Red Nichols or the New Orleans Rhythm Kings winning this award? Is the “Historical Record” category intended to reflect contemporary appeal, continuing school of influence, both, or some other factor(s)?

bluesianaHM: Again, the JJA does not promote any particular view of what the “Historical Record” category is meant to reflect. It’s simply the preferences of the most of the voters opining about releases that fall into that very general category.

Yes, I can imagine some of those artists you mention winning the Award, but it doesn’t seem likely to me. I would not expect it unless material was released that completely revised the oeuvre of those artists as we know it, and probably released by one of the more prominent labels (such as you’ve mentioned, Mosaic or Columbia Legacy). It would most probably happen if such a release were widely publicized, on the order of the discovery of the Monk/Coltrane tapes in the Library of Congress vaults (which doubled the little bit of Monk/Coltrane already available with a superb concert very well recorded and issued by Blue Note Records). I was always surprised that the “suitcase tapes” of Parker and Gillespie from a hotel room in 1942, issued I think by Stash, never made much of a splash.

The challenge is greater for lesser-known artists, because not everybody agrees that something is great, and not everybody sees everything. Several years ago I was enthusiastic about Bluesiana, by pianist Frank Melrose and issued on Delmark, but few of my colleagues seemed intrigued by it, and it attracted few votes other than mine.

AJS: What is the role of this category? Why does the JJA choose to honor artists whose work may have been created close to a century ago?

As much as I’m concerned about the present and future, there are many pleasures to be had from jazz that’s one hundred years old. I read books that are at least that old and I like movies from the thirties and forties. I listen to music that has ancient roots and has not been technologically updated. I’m interested in anything that endures to have a lively presence now, whenever it was created. I would like my fellow critics (of every art form) to act on similar principles, because it seems to me what critics try to do is determine what works of art are worth our continued attention. There’s no reason to assume music made decades ago can’t please people today. People today are not so different than people were then.

Hail Jelly Roll, Pops, the Dodds brothers, James P. Johnson, the Boswell Sister, Red Allen, Duke’s Jungle Band, Bessie Smith and the other classic blues singers, James Reese Europe, Bechet and all the originators. They had the right ideas, there at the founding of music that keeps generating new and exploratory manifestations.

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In other words, keep looking for Armstrong and Ellington as well as Beiderbecke, Goodman, Oliver and Henderson, perhaps even Nichols and Wooding, on the JJA’s rosters. Yet be patient finding them.  More importantly, keep reissuing them and get the word out!

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Thesis

The Fiddler from DC WikiThere is more than enough venom on the Internet to stop me from even showing my fangs. Yet some comments made in an article on the website PopMatters finally got me to bite.

In the latest edition of their column “Counterbalance,” which aims to look “at the idea of critical acclaim from a broader perspective,” Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn ostensibly set out to examine and praise Charles Mingus’s Oh Yeah. Oh yeah, indeed! Kudos to these writers for discussing music that may or may not be familiar to the website’s readers. Kudos just for taking the time to talk about music that moves them, rather than mocking the music they don’t care for.

Except that, unfortunately, their column splits the difference. Somehow, on the way to admiring Mingus’s 1960 album, they manage to get in two passing but very powerful potshots at all the “early” jazz that just doesn’t suit them (although it might be fairer to say “earlier” jazz, since, at a half-century old, many listeners might consider Oh Yeah to also be “early” jazz). After Klinger sets up the piece, one of the first points he makes is to discount not just historical analysis but by extension the all the sounds that make that analysis worthwhile:

I’m not a fan of how we present jazz to younger audiences. We either force college kids to listen to it in chronological order, which is usually about as exciting as starting American history off with that Cotton Mather guy or making kids read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. I have nothing against early jazz, but listening to scratchy old 78s that sound like old-timey cartoon music isn’t likely to fire up today’s modern youths, with their little pants and their fancy phones.

Klinger’s writing is breezy, assured and completely one-sided. He offers no reasons to dismiss early jazz, only an opinion that history is “bo-ring.” Instead of evidence or argument to support his suggestion that prewar jazz will never be able to vie for younger audiences’ attention, he tosses out a clever but unconvincing bit of metonymy; he apes a stereotypical senior citizen’s dismissal of new things but ends up seconding their narrow-mindedness. Both Klinger and his imagined old person are proud to shut themselves off from the unfamiliar; they just reject things based on different time periods.

c/o musicaltoronto.org

Later on, cowriter Mendelsohn wholeheartedly agrees.  As a piece of critical or even personal writing, Mendelsohn offers his heart as well as his gut at the complete expense of sharing his mind or personal voice. This is also how he chooses to introduce himself to the reader:

My introduction to jazz came via the chronological order thanks to a jazz class I took in college. I nearly failed that course, not because I don’t like jazz, but mostly because I was a freshman and there were much more interesting things to do.

Instead of a mature writer carefully considering the topic at hand, we get a smug, class-cutting kid. His idea is not only given much more space than needed (in terms of economy of page, it would have been far easier to write “yeah, early jazz is lame” and move on), but the offhand tone is irksome, as though a breezy admission of one’s adolescent laziness makes it something more than that.

Mendelsohn probably would have called me a “nerd, ass-kisser” or “sap” for always going to class, even the ones that bored me or didn’t have any pretty girls nearby. I just never assumed that my own unfamiliarity with a work or idea meant that the work or idea was not worth investigating further. I have tried applying this approach all of the classrooms I enter, whether they’re in a school, hall, nightclub, living room or webpage, throughout my life. Frankly, anyone putting their name under a byline that in any way claims to say something important about a topic should do the same. Mendelsohn might now call me a “hater” or elitist.”

By the time I reached the end of this column, I wanted to listen to Oh Yeah and couldn’t help but rifle off the following comment:

I’m not sure whether I should feel bad for the two of you because you never had a teacher who could contextualize that “old-timey cartoon music” on “scratchy old 78s,” allowing you to overcome your own tastes and grow to appreciate it, or to be jealous that you’ve landed a gig where all you have to do is talk about those tastes and pass them off as some type of musical PSA. Music that is dismissed as “old” is merely music that is unfamiliar, and for a column that purports to open ears, you might want to open your own.

Besides all of the venom on the web, there are also many poorly argued points on the Internet (and that’s not to say my own writing hasn’t added a few) and plenty of things that this insignificant blogger disagrees with. Yet what probably amounts to a throwaway point for Klinger and Mendelsohn represents an approach to listening, music, and to ideas that is pretty much the antithesis of why I maintain this blog.

Everyone is entitled to his or her tastes, and everyone with a keyboard and a web browser is entitled to write about those tastes. Yet reading this column, I can’t help but sense another group of readers having their aesthetic prejudices quickly and cleverly affirmed. I just want to ask them, “If you’re not even showing up to class to hear music you’ve never heard, how is it anything but untested and ‘new’ for you?”

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A Dillon Ober Playlist

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Virtually all of Dillon Ober’s legacy as a jazz musician was recorded with just two bandleaders over a four and a half year period and without a single solo. It’s a modest discography, perhaps appropriate for such an unflashy drummer, but it illustrates an energetic, at times arresting spirit behind the kit.

How Ober began playing is unclear but he obviously started young. Born April 8, 1904 in West Virginia, by 1919 young Dillon was already listed as a “musician” in the Clarksburg town directory. He cut his first record in 1922 playing marimba with the Mason-Dixon Seven Orchestra. The band included future dance band star Ted Weems and his brother Art and was popular at West Virginia University. It also traveled as far as University of Michigan and the town of Beaver, Pennsylvania as well as New York City to cut one unissued take of “I’m Just Wild About Harry” for Columbia with the young marimba player. The Seven might have also worked in Philadelphia, or perhaps Ober was in town solely for his wedding to Alice “Nellie” Broadwater in 1922. The young couple lived with Ober’s (apparently very patient) parents through 1925 while he continued to work as a musician.

Ober no doubt continued to gig and gain experience, including on drum set. By December 1926, he was confident enough to return to New York City and record with saxophonist Jack Pettis and several of Pettis’s fellow sidemen from Ben Bernie’s Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra. Bernie led an incredibly popular and well-respected band. Playing with its crack sidemen as well as jazz greats Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang in the music capital of the world must have excited the twenty-two year old pro from down South. He sticks to rhythmic background for most of “He’s The Last Word” but bears down harder behind the leader’s red-hot saxophone:

Ober’s drumming is more like great seasoning than a whole recipe: it flavors the performance and never overpowers the whole, occasionally jumping out before fading back into the mix. Ober is back on drums at Pettis’s next session and while it’s hard to hear Ober on “I Gotta’ Get Myself Somebody To Love,” it’s easy to feel his contribution to the side’s breezy momentum:

Ober sounds downright electrified on a Pettis date with guest clarinetist Don Murray. This was Ober’s sixth session in New York since his arrival, including one directed by Bernie’s arranger Kenn Sisson, and he must have been making a name for himself. Murray’s jittery arpeggios obviously contribute to the bright mood. The up-tempo “Hot Heels” lives up to its name:

Even at a medium tempo, “Dry Martini” picks up steam from Murray’s reedy phrases and Ober’s simple but spurring “1…1,2…” behind them:

Perhaps feeling more comfortable at his next record session (his first with the famous Victor label), Ober varies his technique more for “Bag O’Blues”:

He alternates cymbal backbeats and syncopations next to Nick Gerlach’s violin but sticks to a simpler beat behind trumpeter Bill Moore and Murray, allowing guitarist Eddie Lang to push the soloists and change up the rhythmic texture. Ober then switches to wood blocks behind Moore’s solo, while the “ting” and “swish” of his cymbals behind Lang’s solo add even more contrast. Far from just keeping time, Ober varies his beats, plays tasteful fills and inserts himself just enough to add color at key points. He chimes behind Bill Moore’s chatter on “Doin’ The New Low Down” and also taps an interesting paraphrase of Gerlach’s paraphrase, as Gerlach plays it, on woodblocks:

Ober would play drums on all of Pettis’s sessions as a leader. Pettis started out with no less than the New Orleans Rhythm Kings before becoming Ben Bernie’s star soloist. His light, swinging “Chicago style” sax enlivens every recording it’s on, he penned hot instrumentals such as “St. Louis Shuffle” and “Up And At ‘Em” and his Band, Orchestra, Pets and Lumberjacks produced some of the hottest jazz of the pre-swing era. Ober must have been doing something right if Pettis liked his drumming.

Pettis and possibly some of his sidemen must have spread the word: Ober took over the drum chair in Ben Bernie’s Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra and would stay there for the next three years. He’s off to a brilliant start on record with Bernie, waxing “Ten Little Miles From Town” and “When Polly Walks Through The Hollyhocks,” two sugary titles that really move (and include alternate takes without vocals) as well as Kenn Sisson’s novel arrangement of Joseph Northrup’s “Cannon Ball Rag”:

Highlights include Ober’s backbeat on the last chorus of “Ten Little Miles” and the way that he and pianist Al Goering gradually add more decoration to the end of each vocal phrase on “Polly.” Ober also really digs in behind the trumpet and trombone on “Cannon Ball.” The Bernie band was based out of the swank Hotel Roosevelt in midtown Manhattan. While not expressly a jazz band and even with tightly arranged charts, it played with energy as well as elegance and left room for dynamic ensembles and soloists. “Rhythm King” and “I Want To Be Bad” are models of crisp, buoyant and warm twenties dance grooves:

Playing with Bernie at the Hotel Roosevelt would have kept Ober occupied and financially stable but the drummer continued to record with Pettis’s side groups. He got to play with young jazz luminaries such as Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden and Tommy Dorsey through working with Pettis, and for one date worked under the direction of vocalist and impresario Irving Mills. Word of mouth went far in the Manhattan musical community of the time and work was plentiful, so it’s likely Ober picked up work outside of the studio. Ober’s drive as well as sense of balance on “At The Prom” is a fine sample of his portfolio:

Ober and the propulsive (still unidentified) string bassist take turns driving the band. The bass does the heavy lifting behind the vocal and the violin while Ober plays cymbals behind the sax, stopping after the break to avoid monotony, then alternates open and closed hits for the bridge of the trumpet solo. He’s clearly thinking about how to deliver rhythm as well as variety, something the well-connected, band-booking Mills must have heard. Back with Pettis’s Pets for “Bugle Call Blues,” Ober plays crisp press rolls behind the trombone and piano, indicating he probably listened to New Orleans expatriates or their Chicago disciples:

Ober’s doubling ability would have also made him a versatile hire. He had started on record playing marimba, and his xylophone obbligato behind Pettis’s first chorus bridge on the Victor pressing of “Freshman Hop” is a short but catchy hint of Ober’s inventive touch at the keys:

“I’m In Seventh Heaven” by the Bernie band has a catchy lilt, but Ober’s gliding xylophone obbligato, combined with Merill Klein’s slap bass and the low-register clarinet (perhaps played Manny Prager, Pettis’s sub?) steals the show:

On September 18, 1929, Ober, Ben Bernie and several members of the Bernie band arrived in England to play at London’s fashionable Kit Cat Club. Mark Berresford indicates that unfortunately the band was poorly received by the press. Ober and his colleagues returned to the States a month later. That same year, Bernie lost his longtime spot at the swanky Hotel Roosevelt and lost much of his savings in the stock market crash. He handed leadership of the band over to Jack Pettis in April 1930, moving onto less jazz-oriented groups for radio while Pettis led the band through the end of the year.

Ober made his last credited record, for Bernie and forever, in 1931 (Wikipedia claims that Ober also worked with Ace Brigode but neither Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography nor Brian Rust’s The American Dance Band Discography list Ober playing with Brigode). Working with Bernie must have earned Ober something of a reputation so it’s likely he continued to work outside of record sessions. He lists his occupation as “hotel musician” on the 1930 census, and The Premier Drum Company thought enough of Ober to include a photo of him eyeing one of their products alongside several other noted musicians in its 1930 catalog.

Dillon Ober et al

The 1930 census shows Dillon and Nellie Ober living in Queens, but by 1934 he begins to appear in credits for movies made in California, starting with the comedy short “Old Maid’s Mistake,” followed by “Every Night At Eight” in 1935 and “The Country Doctor” and “The Crimes Of Dr. Forbes” in 1936. Ober wasn’t a complete stranger to acting, having already appeared in the 1928 Broadway musical Here’s Howe (with music by bandleader Roger Wolfe Kahn and introducing the standard “Crazy Rhythm”). He didn’t seem to need much theatrical range for film, given roles such as “comedy singer, piano player” and “trick drummer.” More importantly, Ober had an entryway into the West Coast studios. By 1937, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported Ober was “…on Walt Disney’s payroll out in Hollywood, tapping out sounds in animated talkies.” Ober’s un-credited work from this period might not have been glamorous but it was steady and he seemed to enjoy it.

Musician Don Ingle, who described Ober as “…one of the great drummers who disappeared into the movie studios in California and was rarely known outside of that arena in the years of large studio orchestra staffs” provides a very personal portrait of Ober during those years in California:

Dillon Ober was a very nice man, looking as I recall a lot like Robert Benchley. We used to go to visit at his place in the Valley not far from our home, as Dad [big band sideman “Red” Ingle] and he had become good friends in the thirties through their mutual friend Orm [Ormand] Downes, another of the unsung but superb drummers who had shared the stand with Dad for much of the thirties in the Ted Weems band. Dillon and Orm and Dad often gathered to socialize when not working, and Dillon’s home was often the site of poker parties, barbeques and a pleasant place to visit. I learned by listening to [Ober’s] descriptions of working with the great musical directors of Hollywood and how they scored the films, a very technical and critically timed process. They would also tell war stories from the big band days and talk about the players they’d come up with in the business.

Ober may have also played for the military after he enlisted in the Army Air Corp in 1942, as it’s unlikely the thirty-eight year old would have been placed into combat at the height of World War Two. He passed away just five years later, barely middle-aged and outlived by his father.

It’s clear that Ober didn’t record much and perhaps easy to suggest he didn’t “do” much behind the drum set, but he played exactly what was needed for his fellow musicians. Record after record reveals a no-frills, reliable, rhythmic drummer with his own subtle but instantly galvanizing personality. As for how much he recorded, in this case something is far better than nothing. Ober’s modest style and modest discography make for some very distinguished music.

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For the completest Dillon Ober, check out Retrieval’s excellent Ben Bernie album and try to hunt down the now discontinued Jack Pettis double CD set from the King’s Crossing label.  For a whole other look at Ober and a good laugh, please check out Michael Steinman’s notes here.

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Stephanie Trick Keeps Fast Company

All at once curious and commonsensical seeing Stephanie Trick as one of the names “people also search for” while Googling James P. Johnson:

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I will (gladly and easily) leave issues of historical legacy and cultural politics aside. It is simply always rewarding to see this group of musicians. It’s also inspiring to see a “new” face reminding that music doesn’t have to be an era or a hierarchy, that musical ideas don’t have expiration dates and that there is plenty of room on our shelves and hard drives.

Judging by these search results, readers are probably more than familiar with Ms. Trick but this clip of her alongside Dalton Ridenhour, literally and musically, at last year’s Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival is still worth sharing:

It’s a useful practical illustration of the mechanics of four-hands performance, with the two players switching lead and accompaniment, keeping up one or the other as they switch musical roles and bench positions, moving from lead over accompaniment to cross-handed exchanges as the keyboard choreographs the whole narrative. The clip is also rhythmic, energetic, at times funny, always sincere, reminiscent of the greats and relentlessly in the moment.

Heard that one before?

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Max Jones And The Garden Of Jazz

Louis-Armstrong-and-Miles-DavisOn a Friday, before we all pack up for the weekend and retreat to our iPods and musical monasteries, here are some of Max Jones’s memories of a time before Google and even Gunther Schuller, expressed lyrically but not pedantically:

In those times [the early thirties] anything in the jazz garden seemed lovely. Criticism had hardly raised its head, jazz history was obscure, and we accepted the styles as they came to us, on record or in person. Instruction, from John Hammond, an early guru, was printed in the Melody Maker and let us know that, say, a rival to Coleman Hawkins (Chu Berry) was “out of this world.” But we had little analysis or weighty criticism to go on, and tell us how to react. So we listened to all we could, relying on our ears to form our taste; I imagine we were none the worse for it…

My studies helped me acquire knowledge of jazz history and pre-history, of territory styles and New Orleans traditions, but seriously restricted my outlook. Time taught me the errors of purism.

These statements are offered without judgment or temporal prejudice. Happy listening!

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In Search Of Rag-A-Jazz

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Another Corner Of The Hothouse

Jazz loves hybrids, though some blends get more sunlight than others. A web search for “raga jazz” turns up pages of results showing the cross-pollination between jazz and Indian classical music. Yet a search for the union of ragtime and jazz known as “rag-a-jazz” just generates more results for raga jazz. Google won’t even ask if you meant rag-a-jazz.

So, what are web crawlers missing out on? One example is a watershed moment in American pop and a million seller for Paul Whiteman, his recording of “Wang Wang Blues”:

It keeps the syncopation and staccato attack of ragtime but has its own popping sense of tension and release, as well as a humor that is not just ragged but downright raucous; just listen to Buster Johnson’s trombone or how clarinetist Gus Mueller slices and slurs into each chorus. How do we describe this music, teasingly similar yet ultimately unlike ragtime or most of the jazz discussed in history books and played in swanky clubs? How would we find other examples of this sound?

Unsurprisingly, musicians, historians and open-eared listeners prove far more illuminating than search engines. Reed player and contemporary rag-a-jazz performer Dan Levinson defines rag-a-jazz as “a hybrid style of dance music that existed briefly from the mid teens through the early twenties, while ragtime was evolving into jazz” and which “still held onto many characteristics of ragtime in terms of syncopation, song forms and even the way eighth notes were played.”

The OM5, Left to Right: Phil Napoleon on trumpet, Frank Signorelli on piano, Jimmy Lytell on clarinet, Miff Mole on trombone (with Charles Panelli subbing in the above clips) and Jack Roth on drums.

Early jazz bandleader Vince Giordano describes the “baby steps of jazz,” with “elements of both jazz and ragtime” as well as “early syncopation but still a little bit of ragtime feel.” Giordano explains that rag-a-jazz surfaced around the time of Scott Joplin’s death and the end of the ragtime era, continuing through a period when “jazz was just taking shape and many orchestra leaders weren’t sure which way to go.” Levinson also mentions the “betwixt-and-between state of ragtime and jazz [that is] no longer quite ragtime.”

Rag-a-jazz conductor and multi-instrumentalist Matt Tolentino notes “ragtime still managed to hang on as a powerful musical force. Ragtime had a strong presence that more or less drove popular music in America from about 1895 to about 1917, so even though the general public had grown tired of it, they couldn’t escape it. The syncopation that ragtime had introduced was what America was used to listening to, and even though it wanted to say it was through with ragtime, such a night and day change in listening would be impossible.”

For rag-a-jazz drummer and bandleader Nick Ball, rag-a- jazz is “…the original ‘Rosetta Stone’ of music that is stylistically in the cracks, where one clearly defined idiom was merging into another or being strongly influenced by a parallel one from elsewhere in the world.” Ball also calls rag-a-jazz “the oldest of these transitional subgenres to have been documented on record in anything like enough detail for us to understand the process of its birth and its demise…a subgenre which lasted less than a decade, subsequently almost hidden in the long shadows cast by its parent, pure ragtime, and its child, pure jazz.”

More than a historical note, the music grouped under the term “rag-a-jazz” (or in search engine syntax, “‘rag-a-jazz’ -raga jazz”) is an example of fusion from decades before anyone plugged into an amplifier. It’s also an example of musical ideas that some would dismiss as wrong turns, many more would forget and others, thankfully, hear as another musical universe.

The Avant-Garde ODJB

Levinson points to what many consider the first jazz record as a prime example of rag-a-jazz, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Livery Stable Blues”:

Speaking about the “musical revolution” of the ODJB’s earliest records, collector and historian Mark Berresford explains “what the ODJB had done was to simplify and deformalize ragtime to its barest state and, once stripped of its hallmarks, rebuild it into a clearly defined polyphonic structure, placing greater emphasis on maintaining impetus and excitement.”  Many history books draw attention to the ODJB’s frantic tempos, barnyard onomatopoeia and madcap spirit, which would have surprised (and possibly irritated) ragtime composers/performers. Yet even the ODJB’s later, more subdued sides display a distinct swagger a part from the lilt of ragtime:

Berresford also explains that “…as musicians’ ability to improvise grew, so their reliance on the structures of ragtime declined.” While ragtime players incorporated improvisation into their performances, it would obviously come to have a much larger role in jazz. Garvin Bushell, an ear-witness to these developments, summarizes his first attempts at playing jazz as “study[ing] rags on piano and omit[ting] the melodic pattern, just improvising on the harmonic pattern.”

Besides musical vocabulary and written notation, song forms themselves began to change. Early jazz maintained multi-strain structures until the swing era of the thirties, but Berresford notes how bands such as the ODJB would use a simpler configuration of fewer strains than formal ragtime. “What the ODJB’s performance lacks in form,” Berresford explains, “more than makes up for in dynamics, excitement and rhythmic drive, using devices such as solo breaks and the three-voice lead to signal its departure from the formality of ragtime.”

Ensembles and Drums Under The Sun

Berresford sums up rag-a-jazz’ musical characteristics as “a strong two-beat feel with predominantly ensemble playing, often heavy drum patterns and frequently fast tempos.” A two-beat feel in jazz is familiar to even occasional attendees at a Dixieland brunch, and contemporary jazz festivalgoers are no strangers to fast tempos. Yet rag-a-jazz’s constant collective interplay can sound strange to contemporary jazz lovers.

There is an unspoken, occasionally questioned but nonetheless powerful definition of jazz as ‘the’ idiom of an improvising soloist. In rag-a-jazz and in a pre-Louis Armstrong soundscape more generally, musicians don’t take turns soloing. Other than occasional short breaks, the emphasis is on ensemble interplay, balance and in some cases competition.

Rag-a-jazz represents a different concept of jazz, as ensemble music, a concept expressed in the unrecorded New Orleans parade bands of its earliest years, in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, in groups led by Miles Davis during seventies and in those led by today’s jazz musicians such as Vijay Iyer and Robert Glasper. The best bands simply know how to play as bands, regardless of era. There is no sense of musical or expressive limitation while listening to the Original Memphis Five’s parts lock and slide into one another, even though no one player get so much as a half-chorus to themselves:

Decades of smooth, swinging cymbals can also make the syncopated, staccato beats of snares, rims, woodblocks and cowbells sound strange. “March-like” is the description and death sentence often thrown around for this style of drumming. Rag-a-jazz drummers were often influenced by marching band techniques as well as the ragtime drumming inspired by those techniques. All influences apparently not being equal, many jazz writers imply that marches are an inferior inspiration next to Afro-Cuban rhythms, hip-hop or other sources.

Drummer Hal Smith, on the other hand, talks about Tony Sbarbaro and other rag-a-jazz drummers as merely having their own distinct, often challenging approach a part from but just as valid as that of Zutty Singleton or Jo Jones (or for that matter, Elvin Jones or Terri Lyne Carrington). Nick Ball praises the prominent drums of Louis Mitchell, Anton Lada, Benny Peyton and others as “thrilling, riotous, imaginative, highly individualistic, incredibly technically proficient and, for the time, very well-recorded.”

For other listeners, this style may be vaguely familiar from some of the hippest names in jazz drumming. Jazz educator Mark Gridley explains:

The earliest jazz drummers often devised lines of activity bearing rhythmic and melodic contours that were distinctly different from the contours of lines being contributed by their fellow musicians. The practice of playing an independent line of activity was suppressed in swing [during the thirties]…It enjoyed a resurgence, however, in bop [during the forties]…This independent line of activity…provides a layer of boiling sounds that increases the excitement of the combo performance. The use of this activity continued through the fifties and sixties [and] has been an accepted practice for all modern drummers of the seventies and eighties…The rhythms used by the modern drummers were not those of ragtime, but the spirit in which they played is analogous to the conception shown by the earliest drummers.

Jazz scholar Dr. Lewis Porter debunks the myth of early jazz drummers as mere timekeepers while also drawing attention to their intricate fills and contrapuntal playing. Porter describes Sbarbaro “going crazy” in the best sense of the term. Whatever these drummers gained from ragtime or military music, it worked for them, their colleagues and anyone who wanted to listen.

20drumskitCareOfPolarityRecordsDotCom

Dance Music, And Pragmatism

In some ways rag-a-jazz’s most radical difference from the ragtime that preceded it and the postwar jazz that is now lingua franca was that listening was a secondary activity. Rag-a-jazz, as well as most prewar styles of jazz, was above all intended for dancing. Ragtime had its own signature lilt but the new “jass” music really moved bodies.

Traditional jazz musician and writer Chris Tyle reminds that at the time, records were labeled “fox trot, tango, waltz, etc.” for a reason; “Original Dixieland One Step” was just that, a one-step. He also points to the symbiotic influence between music and dancing and the need to ask, “did music change because the dancing changed, or vice-versa?”

Rag-a-jazz musicians (and later on New Orleans via Chicago and big band swing players) had to serve a very practical purpose. Besides the need to get dancers out on the floor, Tyle also points to the material conditions that not only shaped the music but also made it so varied. The size of the venue or a record label’s budget determined band size and repertoire. In some ways this practical basis allows for far more variety than the wide-open plains of art music.

Ball explains that as a style, rag-a-jazz “was so brief that no kind of standardization had time to be established, virtually no two ensembles had the same or even similar instrumentation and every band seemed to have approached the music completely different to each other in terms of image, repertoire, performance practice; no individual’s singing or playing style became familiar enough to become cliché.” It’s why this era includes such fascinating combinations as the Louisiana Five, with Yellow Nunez playing lead on clarinet without a trumpet in sight:

or novel sounds such as the Whiteway Jazz Band’s arrangement of “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me,” where the saxophone plays the melody and the trumpet plays obbligato around it, a touch of role reversal in a traditional jazz setting (listen here or below):

Of Eighth Notes and Expectations

While simultaneously departing from ragtime, part of this music’s unique excitement and sound has to do with the musicians phrasing in eight, a holdover from ragtime’s pianistic basis. Similar to fingers flying across the keyboard, the notes fly out of these groups in a jittery “rat-tat-tat-tat” that is agitatedly exciting and a world a part from jazz’s later, more vocally-conceived lines.

Vince Giordano mentions the ODJB and vaudeville artists of the early twenties as just a few examples of a bass part playing two-to-the-bar, just like in ragtime, while horns phrase in eight like the right hand of a ragtime pianist. Later on in the twenties, some jazz bands would keep the two-beat bass but without the ragtime “tinge” of the earlier bands.

Giordano raises phrasing in eight as a key part of rag-a-jazz, stressing the eight feel with his own sidemen when they perform this repertoire. As a few other examples of this feel, he cites The Virginians’ “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” in a Ferde Grofe arrangement:

Lillyn Brown’s early recording of the jazz warhorse “Jazz Me Blues,” especially its vocal and trumpet:

the instrumental asides of Mamie Smith’s “I Want A Jazzy Kiss,” especially its chattering wood blocks:

and Mamie Smith’s “Sax-O-Phoney Blues”:

On “Sax-O-Phoney Blues,” the staccato syncopations, chains of eighth notes and reedy arrangement sound very much like orchestral ragtime. The growling trumpet and Smith’s vocal speak to something broader, in terms of phrasing as well as spirit.

Levinson emphasizes that the eighth notes in rag-a-jazz “don’t ‘swing’ the way eighth notes do in most form of jazz,” and are instead “played ‘straight’ or ‘even,’ the way eighth notes are played in ragtime, classical music and every other style of music.” Those even eighth notes can make a huge impact on today’s jazz lovers. Decades of uneven eighth notes as well as post-Armstrong phrasing can make this music sound like it’s simply not jazz. Yet taken on its own terms and without comparison to other rhythmic concepts, it is just another approach to the tradition. Jazz has become a very big tent but its own backyard still has much to offer.

They Always Call It “Music”

The word “jazz” itself also seems to distinguish the new style from ragtime, not just musically but in terms of personal identity. In chronological and cultural terms, Giordano sums up this shift well:

You’re just getting out of World War I, which was such a horrific event, and I think young people just said, ‘We’re going to have a good time,’ and the music really reflects that.

What could be more personal, more joyful and more representative of jazz than a love song to the saxophone?

http://the78rpmrecordspins.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/the-milwaukee-journal-google-news-archive-search-feb-4-1923-husk-ohare.jpg

Transitional period, stylistic amalgam, generational signifier, offshoot of ragtime, jazz unlike any before or since and expression of peacetime ecstasy: labels are never airtight but “rag-a-jazz” has come to encompass all of these things. Most musicians and collectors agree that Leonard Kunstadt originated the term in its current usage. Depending on the source, Kunstadt either began using it in the pages of Record Research magazine, which he founded in 1955 and continued to edit and publish, in Jazz: A History of the New York Scene, published in 1962 and coauthored by Kunstadt and Samuel Charters, or at some later point in the seventies.

The phrase does appear much earlier in the name Southern Rag-A-Jazz Band. Yet this London-based band (by way of Nebraska) used it for catchy marketing rather than stylistic labeling. Obviously the musicians themselves were just playing music that came naturally to them. It’s hard to imagine that they understood what they were doing as an offshoot or development.

Garvin Bushell actually saw no distinction between ragtime and jazz. He proudly declares that, as a young pianist, “my knowledge of ragtime assured me I would not have any trouble [playing] jazz. Since there was very little difference between the two, I knew I could master it.” His comments about the repertoire and approach of his earliest bands are also revealing:

As I recall, we also had copies of “Maple Leaf Rag,  Way Down Yonder In The Corn Field, ‘The Whistler And His Dog,” and “Give My Regards To Broadway.” Although poorly reproduced, these records contained the foundation of the jazz that was to come, particularly “Maple Leaf Rag.” I make this statement with no fear of contradiction. Ragtime, as it was called then, had the technical essence that was later required in jazz. While ragtime was always played in the moderate or fast ‘two’ tempo, jazz merely slowed it down to a fast or medium ‘four’ … We’d usually have eight or nine guys: trumpet, trombone, clarinet, saxophone, piano, banjo, tuba and drums. Maybe a violin or a bandolin (half banjo, half violin). Since there weren’t dance arrangements then for saxophones and trumpets, the pieces we rehearsed were mostly pit orchestrations. We’d pull out one clarinet part, one sax part, and on like that. The piano player had a part, as a rule, and the bass player faked. In fact, most everybody faked, since none of us could read that well. The style was very much what you hear on the early records-we called it “ragtime jazz.”

At the time and like any time before and since, musicians were simply drawing upon what was around them, what historian Richard Sudhalter called “the rich fermentation of American popular music between 1917 and 1923.” That doesn’t make latter-day commentary and analysis superfluous; in fact, hindsight lets us appreciate and understand the wide variety of music offered by history. iPods can store Phil Napoleon’s trumpet right alongside Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong’s horns.

Play “Ricky-Tick” For Me

Giordano explains that by 1923 or 1924, the rag-a-jazz style began to fade as musicians and audiences absorbed the New Orleans via Chicago “stomp” style and its quarter note feel. Berresford also notes that “the 1923 date is seen by many as the seminal date by which jazz had thrown off all the shackles of its ragtime antecedents and strode forth into the world in its own right – it is no coincidence that 1923 saw the first recordings by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (with a young second cornetist named Louis Armstrong), Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, whilst Coleman Hawkins had made his first, faltering records with Mamie Smith the year before and Bix Beiderbecke was to appear on records just a year later.”

As one example of this change, Chris Tyle points out the difference between Kid Ory’s first recording of his “Ory’s Creole Trombone”:

and his later performance with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five:

Compared to Louis Armstrong’s “legato” phrasing and the rhythm section’s regular beat, the earlier record is “choppier.” Ory plays his breaks more clipped and cornetist Mutt Carey’s “punchier” attack is reminiscent of Freddie Keppard, one of the few New Orleans trumpets to came out of the older, ragtime based tradition.

louis armstrong“Choppy” may sound like a criticism while “smooth” is the preferred descriptor, but only from one  perspective. The smoother attack and more swinging flow of these groups wasn’t a matter of inventing jazz as we know it, but a different set of influences and musical ideas. Exactly when, where, how and why those musical priorities changed remains a hotly debated topic, but it was clearly not a matter of some artistic teleology. As Nick Ball says, “jazz didn’t actually burst fully-formed from the mind of Louis Armstrong in 1923, as many books and films imply.”

The influence of these New Orleans bands and eventually King Oliver’s second trumpeter on young musicians cannot be overstated. By 1928, Boston-born trumpeter Max Kaminsky knew which musicians spoke to him:

The crush roll of the Chicago drummers [such as George Wettling] was unheard of back East, where they were still playing oom-pah and ricky-tick, breaking up the rhythm into choppy syncopations instead of keeping a steady beat you could play against…That nervous, ragged, ricky-tick beat of the white dance bands of the twenties was one of the factors that had been at the bottom of my confusion when I listened to my records back home in Boston, trying so desperately to unravel the puzzle of jazz. None of the white musicians I heard on them could keep time. None of the early white popular bands had really understood the beat yet…of playing the melody simply and purely without all the little flutings and corny licks that were regarded as “hot” in those days.

“Oom-pah, ricky-tick, choppy syncopations, nervous” and above all “ragged” are just loaded descriptions for the music that preceded the Oliver/Armstrong hegemony. For players like Kaminsky and later historians, Armstrong and the Chicago sound were not just another way to play jazz; they were the only way to play.

Southern Rag-a-Jazz BandWay Off The Record

The tendency to dismiss so much pre-war and especially pre-Armstrong jazz hasn’t helped the historical record or modern outlets of this style. To some commentators, the term “pre-Armstrong jazz” itself is a contradiction.

Ideally, all source material would be treated equally. A fusion would be a fusion would be a fusion. Yet instead of another interesting example of cross-pollination, most major jazz trades treat rag-a-jazz, and several other styles of early jazz, with the knowing silence reserved for “old music.”

It could just be a matter of age: raga jazz, for example, surfaced during the sixties, while rag-a-jazz had its heyday in the late teens and early twenties (never mind that ragtime itself is a baby compared to the raga tradition). Gabor Szabo is much closer than Earl Fuller in terms of stylistic generations as well as human ones.

Earl Fuller's Famous Jazz Band , 1917: Harry Raderman, Ted Lewis, John Lucas, Earl Fuller, Walter Kahn.

Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band, 1917: Harry Raderman, Ted Lewis, John Lucas, Earl Fuller, Walter Kahn.

Maybe it’s the intangible but powerful factor of “coolness.” Ragtime is made in America, historically distant but geographically and culturally local. It doesn’t have the same connotation of open-mindedness associated with most brands of “world music.” Ragtime is also close enough to the classical conservatory, and therefore Europe, to make it seem old-fashioned and staid (never mind that, as Berresford, Tyle and others explain, ragtime itself is a rich and varied idiom that is not limited to what’s printed on sheet music). Small wonder that, as Sudhalter says, “standard jazz histories usually represent [American popular music between the years 1917 and 1923] as little more than organized disorder, the vaudeville clatter of the ‘nut jazz’ craze set in motion by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and their legions of imitators…”

Once An Era But Always A Style

EchoesInTheWaxLike any musical era, these years included their share of “clatter” but they also featured musicians drawing upon a variety of influences, listening to and absorbing a range of styles and making music that doesn’t sound like anything else. It also continues to enthrall today’s musicians and audiences.  Rag-a-jazz, and its distance from even the towering presence of Louis Armstrong as well as more modern styles of jazz, may even seem like a breath of fresh air.

Vince Giordano frequently arranges rag-a-jazz numbers such as “Wang Wang Blues” for his big band, the Nighthawks, to the delight of dancers at live gigs and viewers of the acclaimed television series Boardwalk Empire. Chris Tyle enjoys playing the style with numerous groups, including his own Silver Leaf Jazz Band; their Freddie Keppard tribute album actually highlights the cornetist’s ragtime influences.  Nick Ball declares that rag-a-jazz “just keeps pulling [me] more and more strongly. I love that it’s rude and it’s louche and it has pretensions of elegance, you can dance to it and you can sit and listen to it too.” Matt Tolentino and his Singapore Slingers look at rag-a-jazz “not [as] a forgotten artifact or a museum piece” but as “music that appeals to all generations, young and old alike.”

Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and trombonist David Sager, two contemporary musicians who play rag-a-jazz as well as many other genres, both cite its unique challenges. Kellso says that “all that ensemble blowing, with little or no rest can be painful” but also explains, with a chuckle, that it “adds character.” Sager describes rag-a-jazz as “some of the most technically demanding stuff [he has] ever attempted.” So much for the assumption that jazz reached its technical zenith with bop.

nighthawks

Both Kellso and Sager play with Dan Levinson’s Roof Garden Jass Band, which Levinson founded in 1987 and has since released three albums of rag-a-jazz. Levinson’s context for the music applies equally well for 1920 or 2014:

Just imagine the liveliness of all these guys who were playing a kind of music nobody had ever heard before. We hear the music today, and might sometimes think it’s rather tame in comparison to some of what we’ve heard since. But think about what people were used to listening to at that time: here comes these guys from New Orleans by way of Chicago, and just blew the roof off.

 Wilbur Sweatman and His Acme Syncopators, 1923: Maceo Jefferson, Ralph Esudero, Duke Ellington, Wilbur Sweatman, Flo Dade, Sonny Greer, Ian Anderson, Otto Hardwick.


Wilbur Sweatman and His Acme Syncopators, 1923: Maceo Jefferson, Ralph Esudero, Duke Ellington, Wilbur Sweatman, Flo Dade, Sonny Greer, Ian Anderson, Otto Hardwick.

“Blowing the roof off” will never be a historical concept, and people are obviously playing and listening to this music. Is it even fair to call “rag-a-jazz” a historical period when it continues to make these kinds of sounds?

***

From the writer: I would like to personally thank Nick Ball, Mark Berresford, Vince Giordano, Dan Levinson, Hal Smith, Michael Steinman, Matt Tolentino and Chris Tyle for taking the time to share their insights about this topic with me. In the most literal sense of this often-used expression, the above piece would simply not have been possible without their help.

I also invite readers to please share their comments, insights, disagreements and suggestions for further reading about this topic. This piece is intended as an introduction to anyone who is interested in rag-a-jazz, so if you found it useful, I also ask that you please share this article and get the word out about this music and its advocates. Thank you!

Finally, and more importantly, here are a few more examples of this music:

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A (The?) Larry Binyon Story

The following post first appeared in multiple parts on this blog, and I was asked to consolidate it into one single entry (and more than happy to oblige). Larry Binyon has been a personal favorite since I first started listening to jazz. Hopefully this post will shed some light on his life and work, and perhaps inspire someone with better resources to research that life, and more importantly Binyon’s music, further. Either way, please enjoy!

Larry BinyonReality television notwithstanding, ubiquity and fame are two very different accomplishments. Just ask Larry Binyon. More practically, Google him: he appears on dozens of record dates (150 jazz sessions alone according to Tom Lord), usually listed alongside some legendary names. Yet that’s all most historians and musicologist have to say about him. Larry Binyon is all over jazz history but not a well-known part of it.

He must have been an impressive musician to get work so consistently, especially with the likes of Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, Red Nichols, the Boswell Sisters, the Dorsey Brothers and other famous names. He also doubled several instruments, mostly playing tenor saxophone but contributing on flute when it was rarely heard in a jazz context. Binyon could also improvise in addition to read and double. Given the company he kept, he got to read and double far more often than he got to take a solo.

Years later and with very few solos on record, sidemen like Binyon can seem like historical packaging material. They surround the names we know best, provide musical as well as personnel background but otherwise end up padding the “real” artistic goods. After all, isn’t jazz “really” about improvisation? Weren’t there “better” improvisers around? Didn’t other musicians double? Couldn’t “anyone” have read the chart, as Binyon did?

Perhaps, but only from the luxury of listening decades later. To musicians, someone who could do all three (and maybe even show up on time and in uniform) would be a precious resource. There must have been a reason why Larry Binyon got to play so often. He also recorded quite a bit, even some of those improvised solos that jazz purists like to hunt down between all the written stuff, which Binyon also made possible. That sounds like far more than filler, and it definitely sounds like an important part of the music.

Chicago And Back Again: The Early Years

Lawrence “Larry” Fiffe Binyon was born in Illinois on September 16, 1908, the younger of Claude and Josephine Armstrong Binyon’s two children (their first child Hugh was born in 1905). Census records show the Binyon family renting one unit of a two-family home in Chicago’s twenty-seventh ward in 1910, with Claude Binyon listed as an unemployed funeral director and somehow still employing a live-in servant. By 1920 the family was renting a single home in the city of Urbana, about 150 miles south of Chicago. Claude now worked as a secretary for an oil company. Josephine was now also employed as a music teacher working out of the Binyon home, now servant-less.

Urbana was a much less densely populated city, and census records show more white-collar jobs among the Binyons’ neighbors in Urbana than those in Chicago. Perhaps quality of life was a factor in their move. Maybe Urbana was simply where Claude could find another steady paycheck, albeit now supplemented with a second income. If there was financial hardship, it could have influenced Larry’s understanding of the value of a dollar. Claude’s death in 1924, when Larry was just sixteen years old, certainly would have put a financial strain on the family. Larry might have developed his later well-documented work ethic at an early age.

It’s unclear how early Larry Binyon started playing music, but safe to assume that his mother shared at least some of her musical knowledge. By age eighteen, Binyon was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, listed on E flat (soprano) flute in the school’s concert band as well as (standard) flute and piccolo in its first regimental band during the 1926-27 school year.

Binyon would only spend one year at college. By 1927 he was already playing professionally in Chicago as part of Beasley Smith’s band, which also included drummer Ray McKinley and clarinetist Matty Matlock. Drummer and future swing era star Gene Krupa was playing across the street from Beasley in Joe Kayser’s band, and Binyon would have encountered an even wider pool of talent in the jazz mecca. Flute may have been Binyon’s first instrument, or at least his primary one at school, but tenor sax would have by now become his main horn for dance bands.

Later on that year drummer, bandleader and talent incubator Ben Pollack came back to Chicago after an unsuccessful gig at the Venice Ballroom in California. His third saxophonist and arranger Fud Livingston had left the band earlier that year (to work with conductor Nat Shilkret in New York City). It’s unclear exactly when or how Binyon hooked up with Pollack, but he was with the Pollack band on December 12, 1927 when it returned to the Victor’s Chicago studio after a five-month hiatus. He even got to solo!

On the final bridge of “Waitin’ For Katie,” Binyon stays pretty close to the melody on the first take and loosens up slightly for the second one. Both takes find Binyon jumping in on a break and ripping into the upper register (here is the issued first take):

Like many jazz musicians from this period, Binyon “routines” his solo but still has something unique to offer. His reedy tone and declaratory, trumpet-like phrasing are very different from Coleman Hawkins’s metal and rapid-fire arpeggios. Binyon has been compared to Bud Freeman, but Freeman generally played in a more agitated style at this time. Binyon sounds more relaxed even at faster tempos. Stated bluntly, he just played fewer notes than those guys.

Apparently Pollack liked Binyon’s notes; his tenor saxophone gets another solo on the session’s other issued side, “Memphis Blues,” where Binyon once again varies things just slightly between two takes (the issued first take follows):

He sounds tentative playing counterpoint in the introduction, and his brief solo might not seem like a model of construction. Yet he doesn’t get much room to stretch out on the W.C. Handy standard. Fud Livingston’s arrangement inserts some snappy chord substitutions from the band into the middle of Binyon’s chorus, which Binyon leaps into with a beautiful, well-executed lick. His preceding improvisation/routine is closer to an earlier, pre-Armstrong tradition that emphasized variety over contiguity. It’s also the work of a nineteen-year old cutting his first record. Better things were still to come but this was an admirable start.

Pollack’s band was filled with young talent, including eighteen-year old Benny Goodman and twenty-year old Jimmy McPartland. They usually got more solos, and have certainly received more ink since this session, but Binyon got to play alongside them and make the Pollack band possible. He must have been doing something worth talking about.

pollackband1929careofredhotjazzdotcom

Making It Work: The Pollack Years

Much to Ben Pollack’s short-term benefit, his band and Larry Binyon parted ways following their December 7, 1927 recording session. Variety’s issue of January 25, 1928 reported that the band had already started a residency at the Club Bagdad in Chicago’s Pershing Hotel. By February 25 it had closed at the Bagdad and was onto New York City. Binyon might have played with the Pollack band during its remaining time in Chicago, but apparently Pollack had another saxophonist in mind for its next move.

Bud Freeman explains that Pollack first heard him play at a late-night jam session in Chicago, and was so impressed by the saxophonist’s solos with McKenzie and Condon’s Chicagoans that he asked Freeman join the Pollack band in New York. These now-famous recordings are widely considered the birth of the “Chicago style.” Yet it’s hard to believe their loose format was a decisive factor in Pollack’s decision. Pollack was running a jazz-infused dance orchestra, not a jam-oriented jazz band. He needed musicians with the ability and discipline to read written arrangement as well as improvise solos. Freeman never hid his distaste for dance band work and didn’t like New York. Pollack fired Freeman after three months for clowning around on the bandstand and then rehired him for an Atlantic City engagement in July, only to have Freeman quit at the end of the month.

Pollack Reed Section c. 1927: Benny Goodman, Fud Livingston and Gil Rodin

Pollack Reed Section c. 1927: Benny Goodman, Fud Livingston and Gil Rodin

After some traveling gigs and a brief dry spell, the Pollack band began a long-term engagement at the prestigious Park Central Hotel on September 28. Pollack already had Jimmy McPartland, Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden (who had joined in June) to contribute hot solos. By this point he was probably willing to sacrifice some improvisational fire for a third saxophonist who could, and would, do the job. That included doubling the numerous other reed instruments that Pollack, apparently inspired by bands such as Roger Wolfe Kahn’s, wanted to show off.

Binyon probably continued to work with Beasley Smith’s band or one of several bands in Chicago while Pollack was in New York. It’s uncertain when Binyon got to New York, whether Pollack sent for him or if he just happened to be one of the many musicians starting to move to the musical epicenter, but by October 1, 1928 Binyon was back on record with the Pollack band in New York.

With three powerful soloists and the band’s tendency to rely on written arrangements, Binyon didn’t get many solos on record with Pollack. With Benny Goodman frequently doubling alto and baritone saxes, he wasn’t even the only saxophone soloist. Pollack instead capitalized on Binyon’s strength as an ensemble player.

A lush waltz like “Forever” or the muted trumpets, violins and (most likely Binyon’s) flute on “Let’s Sit And Talk About You” might not interest jazz listeners but the records work on strictly musical terms. Attention to dynamics, ensemble balance and lyricism are fairly consistent through even the Pollack’s band’s most commercial dates. Its sax section of Binyon, Goodman and lead alto Gil Rodin play with a bright, creamy blend, for example answering the full band on the Victor recording of “Futuristic Rhythm”:

or “From Now On,” on which they achieve an especially transparent sound, right down to Binyon’s purring tenor:

Talented musicians, a steady gig at a famous venue and sheer hustle helped the Pollack band grow incredibly popular, allowing them to move onto radio work, Broadway, various touring appearances and a few short films. The band is featured exclusively on a Vitaphone film shot on July 29, 1929. Binyon is seen in the middle of the sax section, soprano sax, clarinet and flute impressively displayed in front of him while he plays tenor throughout:

Pollack obviously liked Binyon; he appears on every title cut under Pollack’s name (save for one small group session by “Ben’s Bad Boys” in January 1929). Yet a dependable player from a well-known band who could read, double and improvise was bound to get additional offers. Based on his discography, Larry Binyon was more than happy to work on the side.

A Sideman Soloing On The Side

Larry Binyon was talented (and fortunate enough) to have joined the Ben Pollack band just in time for its peak of popularity. He appeared on nearly every title cut under Pollack’s name, but side dates with studio pickup groups let the tenor saxophonist stretch out as more than a section player. He gets to join in with Pollack’s favored soloists on “Whoopee Stomp” under Irving Mills’s leadership, kicking off a string of solos featuring Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden and Jimmy McPartland:

It’s tempting to compare Binyon with these now-marquee names in terms of relaxed phrasing, catchy licks and bluesy inflection, but Binyon’s style works on different priorities. It doesn’t display the same technical confidence but remains driving and tense. Binyon rarely stays in one place, wriggling up and down phrases, emphasizing variety over linear continuity. Binyon played hot solos: no frills, high on energy and contrast yet very personal. Binyon pushes the beat but without the agitation and gritty tone of fellow tenor player Bud Freeman or his cohorts Eddie Miller and Babe Russin. Binyon’s approach is also far removed from the dense arpeggios and metallic tone of the Coleman Hawkins school.

Binyon’s tone, husky, reedy and very distinct, could be an asset unto itself. On “Wont’cha” with Pollack, Binyon gets a paraphrase (one of his few solos of any kind with Pollack) after the vocal that shows off his warm, centered sound:

It’s not an improvised solo but it is an effective orchestral voice, probably appreciated in a dance band setting. Twenties bandleaders would occasionally use a light-toned baritone sax in a melodic role, but it sounds like Binyon’s tenor providing the broad, cello-like lead on the transition to the last chorus of “A Japanese Dream” with Mills:

“Blue Little You” includes a similar voicing on its introduction and right after the vocal. Contrasted with the standard alto lead that immediately follows, it makes an especially colorful effect on what might otherwise be dismissed as a straight dance chart:

Binyon also tosses out an improvised bridge before the ensemble conclusion. His jagged lines come across as flip commentary on the vocalist’s elongated, slightly nasal delivery. Brief solo spots like this one allow Binyon a concentrated burst to say just enough in a few measures. He snaps into the final bridge of “Little Rose Covered Shack,” once again on McPartland’s heels, this time with snaking, clarinet-like lines along with his usual rich tone and tendency to begin phrases in the upper register:

He really cuts loose on one of the few mixed dates of the Jazz Age, a freewheeling session with no less than Fats Waller. With Waller as well as Teagarden, Red Allen, Albert Nicholas, Eddie Condon and Gene Krupa on hand, it’s no surprise that Binyon sounds like he’s having fun. He wails and moans (showing he also listened to Hawkins) through both the introduction and one chorus of “Ridin’ But Walkin’”:

On “Won’t You Get Off It Please?” Binyon sticks to declaratory, at times trumpet-like exclamations, popping out high notes and plunging into the lower register for the release:

Binyon also seems to enjoy himself on “Shirt Tail Stomp,” one of the novelty tunes that “the Pollack band without Pollack” recorded to satisfy popular demand. His big tone stays intact through all of the mooing and whinnying:

Benny Goodman “created” this number after a recording engineer overheard his band mocking a cornball jazz act. Binyon has the perhaps dubious honor of appearing on three of its five versions on record. In addition to reading, doubling and improvising, apparently he was also a capable musical clown.

careofsaxophonedotorgBinyon could obviously fit into a variety of musical settings, from Pollack’s snappy dance band setting to looser blowing sessions and everything between; trumpeter and band organizer Red Nichols had even started hiring him on orchestral pop dates modeled after Paul Whiteman (though mostly doubling oboe and flute as well as tenor sax, with Babe Russin handling solos). He was nothing if not versatile, and a versatile musician was usually a busy one.

By the summer of 1929, Goodman and McPartland had left the Pollack band. They were more than capably replaced by Charlie Teagarden and Matty Matlock. Jack Teagarden would stay on for another three years. Yet Binyon may have seen Goodman and McPartland’s departure as a sign that the Pollack band had peaked. He might have been smarting under the same conditions that drove them out of the band; Pollack had fired two of his top soloists for showing up to work with scuffed shoes! A good reputation as a multitalented player in New York would have enabled Binyon to forego the life of a touring musician. It also would have provided more opportunities to perform in different settings.

Something convinced Binyon to leave his first regular employer and a still widely respected band. Binyon’s last session with Pollack was in January 1930. As usual, he didn’t get any solos. One of the two tunes recorded at that session, “I’m Following You” featured yet another one of the leader’s comically earnest vocals. Larry Binyon might have simply been ready for something different.

 

A Heavy Gig Bag And Phonebook: The Thirties

U.S. Census records state that in April 1930, Larry Binyon was renting a room in his hometown of Urbana, Illinois. Jazz discography shows that by this time, said “saxophonist” working in the industry of “orchestra” (a federal category, or Binyon’s own prestigious description?) was firmly settled in New York City.

Red Nichols Photo care of Stephen Hester

Red Nichols (care of Stephen Hester)

Binyon had stopped recording with popular bandleader Ben Pollack by mid January 1930, but his big sound is clearly audible in the sax section of Sam Lanin’s band on several dates from March through May of that year. A careless census taker may have counted Binyon while he was in town for his mother’s wedding to her second husband. It’s also possible that the twenty-two year old sideman simply neglected to change his address. He was certainly busy enough: his post-Pollack resume reads like a directory of the most popular names in jazz and popular music of the time. He was also working alongside the cream of New York’s musical crop. With Lanin alone, Binyon got to record with Tommy Dorsey, Miff Mole, Manny Klein, Leo McConville and Al Duffy.

He was also part of the veritable all-star band that Red Nichols assembled for the Broadway musical “Girl Crazy.” Binyon had already worked with the trumpeter and booker on a few sessions, including large, symphonic jazz sessions where he doubled flute, oboe and clarinet. Composer George Gershwin wanted a jazz band for “Girl Crazy.” Nichols assembled Pollack alumni Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Charlie and Jack Teagarden as well as drummer Gene Krupa among others. Binyon isn’t usually mentioned as being part of the group, but neither are several other players needed to fill out the band. Binyon’s familiarity with the other players as well as his ability to read and double would have made him a welcome addition to this (or any other) pit.

“Girl Crazy” opened on October 14, 1930. Nine days later Nichols recorded two tunes from the show with several members of the band, including Binyon. Binyon doesn’t get to solo on “I Got Rhythm,” and “Embraceable You” doesn’t leave much room to distinguish any of the musicians. It’s unclear whether Binyon would have preferred more solo opportunities, but he must have been more than used to an ensemble role by this point.

Binyon continued recording with Nichols and Lanin as well as Benny Goodman on some of the clarinetist and future swing powerhouse’s earliest sessions leading a big band in 1931. Goodman assigns Binyon straight, almost dutiful melodic statements on both “I Don’t Know Why” and “Slow But Sure.” He also gets a flowery flute lead on “What Am I Gonna’ Do For Lovin’?” switching to tenor sax as well as a darker tone and more swinging approach for a duet with Goodman on the last chorus:

Given Goodman’s disagreements with Pollack while in his band, it may seem ironic that both bandleaders took a similar approach to Binyon’s role. Yet by the time Goodman began leading bands, that role may not have necessarily reflected Binyon’s abilities as a soloist. Solo space on jazz and dance records grew increasingly limited during the early thirties. Depression-era listeners preferred more sedate pop arrangements to driving hot jazz numbers. Even with the most exciting soloists on hand (Goodman’s 1931 bands included the likes of Bunny Berigan and Eddie Lang), many studio dates from this period stay fairly tame. Binyon may have had a varied toolkit, but his bosses may have needed one specific device.

The joy in listening to a sideman like Binyon is not just listening for when he pops up but what he gets to do. When a band did get to cut loose, for example Roger Wolfe Kahn’s orchestra performing “Shine On Your Shoes,” Binyon could throw down a hot solo on tenor sax:

or use his brawny sound to heat up even straight melodies like “Sweet And Hot” with Nichols:

Binyon’s flute could add the requisite touch of sweetness and refinement as needed. It could also bring an unusual color to up-tempo numbers like “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” with the Charleston Chasers:

The combination of the Binyon’ flute with ensemble syncopations and Krupa’s drums points to more than just a sweet context. Musicologist and historian Gunther Schuller mentions Binyon’s flute as well as Glenn Miller’s arrangement as examples of a sound “well beyond the normal dividing lines between commercial dance music and late twenties jazz.”

Along with Albert Socarras (who had soloed on flute as early as 1929 on “Have You Ever Felt That Way?” with Clarence Williams) and Wayman Carver, Binyon was one of the first to bring the flute into a jazz context. His smoky introduction to the Boswell Sisters’ “Sentimental Gentleman From Georgia” must have made musicians and bandleaders reconsider the possibilities of this instrument in a jazz setting:

In addition to the Boswells, Binyon accompanied vocalists Grace Johnston, Phil Danenberg, Dick Robertson, Chick Bullock, Mildred Bailey and Ethel Waters during the early thirties. He was usually backing these singers alongside member of the same circle of top-notch New York musician that he would have known very well by this point. He impressed Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey enough to land work with their band. At this point the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra was a smaller studio band, allowing Binyon room to solo on instrumentals such as “Mood Hollywood”:

and “Old Man Harlem”:

It’s unclear exactly what type of work Binyon landed outside of the studios during the early thirties. Arranger Don Walker recalls Binyon playing in the band for Hit Parade of 1933 as well as “first (legitimate) flute” in the 1935 musical Maywine. Walker and his copyist Romo Falk excitedly noted Binyon’s presence (expressing similar accolades for Binyon’s section mate, Artie Shaw).

Binyon played with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra for one month in 1936 before moving onto radio work, including jobs under Red Nichols’ direction, as well as other work outside of an expressly jazz context. It was around this time that Binyon also married his first wife, Polly. Seven years younger than Larry, she was born in Puerto Rico and living in Syracuse by 1935, before marrying Larry some time before 1940. The steadier work and more regular hours of radio may have eased his transition to married life, or vice-versa. Binyon even had time for a trip to Bermuda (though it is unclear whether it was for work, honeymoon or one last bachelor outing).

Binyon also did sax section work on jazz dates with Frank Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Bob Zurke and Dick McDonough during the mid to late thirties. McDonough was an experienced, well-connected guitarist who had his pick of sidemen for the few sessions he ever directed during 1936 and 1937. Binyon was on hand for two of McDonough’s dates, getting in some paraphrases as well as a quick-fingered, slightly more modern solo on “He Ain’t Got Rhythm”:

At this stage Binyon had the reputation as well as the chops to work in a variety of settings alongside some of the best players in New York. He even found the time to change his address: by 1940, one Larry Binyon, now a “musician” in the “orchestra” industry, was officially living in New York City.

1940 US Census per AncestryDotCom

Talent, Opportunity And Choice: Final Years and Legacy

The All Music Guide states that Larry Binyon “needed someone to hold the door open for him when he arrived at a recording studio or radio broadcast date.” It’s an unsubstantiated anecdote but an accurate image. By the early thirties Binyon was, in violinist Harry Hoffman’s words, one of New York’s “first-call” studio musicians who could “play anything.” With his move to fulltime radio work in 1936, Binyon would have been playing his tenor sax, flute and oboe, probably clarinet (and possibly the “few fiddle credits” mentioned by AMG writer Eugene Chadbourne) in any number of musical settings.

From The Big Band Almanac by Leo Walker

While trombonist Larry Alpeter adds, “most of these [first-call] guys had fine jazz skills,” Binyon’s appearances on jazz records and already sparse solo spots dried up by the mid forties. He is one of two tenors on Billie Holiday’s 1944 Decca sessions with Toots Camarata’s orchestra, but it’s unclear whether Binyon or Paul Ricci handle the few brief solos on these recordings. Binyon is strictly an ensemble player on his final jazz session, with Jess Stacy’s big band in June 1945.

After close to twenty years of having his hands literally and figuratively full in New York City, Binyon moved to Los Angeles in 1946. Binyon worked once again with Nichols in California, this time in Bobby Dolan’s orchestra on The Ford Show (starring Dinah Shore) from September 18, 1946 through June 11, 1947. Yet Binyon had also relocated to work as a recording contractor for the American Federation of Musicians.

If Binyon was looking to segue into a “behind-the-scenes” role, the paucity of documents from this period indicates that he got his wish. Drummer Johnny Blowers does recall a February 8, 1950 session with Phil Harris organized by Binyon, but otherwise Binyon’s activities as an organizer are largely unrecorded. A new home, warmer climate and slower pace on the West Coast were probably a welcome change for him. It also would have allowed him more time with his son Claude (born in 1940 and named after Larry’s father). Blowers actually secured the Harris date when he ran into Binyon in New York, who was on a vacation of all things.

Blowers also notes that Binyon was still playing with West Coast bands, though it must have been less hectic than the New York scene. Binyon frequently worked with Phil Harris in Los Angeles, previously co-writing “Bump On The Head Brown” for the entertainer along with Chauncey Morehouse and Frank Signorelli (now that would have been a trio!).

Binyon worked the 1952 and 1953 seasons of the Phil Harris and Alice Faye radio show alongside Nichols in Walter Scharf and Skippy Martin’s bands, recorded five numbers with Harris on December 27, 1953 for RCA Victor, packed his gig bag(s) for a tour of Asia in the early fifties and booked sessions for fellow players: it all must have been a breeze for this seasoned musician.

for Phil Harris care of discogsdotcomHe seems to have stopped playing completely by 1955. Based on Binyon’s track record, that must have been by choice rather than necessity. His story fades even further after that decision: marriage to a second wife in Nevada in 1962 and then a third wife in California in 1966, followed by a divorce two years later. Larry Binyon passed away on February 10, 1974 (followed by his brother Hugh in 1978 and then son Claude in 1999, both of whom died childless).

Other than personnel listings and occasional mention by his contemporaries, most of whom are now also gone, Larry Binyon has faded into the background behind more famous names. It’s easy to make a comparison between his legacy and his work, but that would dismiss the talent that earned Binyon such fast company in the first place. How else does one get to play with everyone from Tommy Dorsey to Benny Goodman to Billie Holiday and Fats Waller?

Binyon’s versatility and sheer ubiquity may have actually helped force him into the background. Had he stuck to one or even two instruments, it might have been easier for bandleaders and listeners to remember him. Yet jumping between dozens of dance bands, jazz groups, studio ensembles and radio orchestras, covering a multiplicity of parts as the schedule demanded, always on hand to make every arranger’s’ whim seem like an easy task, it was easy to see Binyon was capable of anything but probably harder to associate him with one thing.

There are enough accolades to show that he wasn’t just any sideman, yet not enough solos to determine what kind of a jazz musician he was (in a world where “jazz” is synonymous with “soloist,” anyway). Depending on how one hears his music, Binyon either lacked the ability or opportunity to inspire followers (though musician and writer Digby Fairweather detects Binyon’s influence in Georgie Auld’s earliest performances). In the end, it’s hard to depict him as a “jazz artist” and inaccurate to dismiss him as some studio drone.

Depending on how one reads his story, Larry Binyon is either a neglected musician, or a person who made a life’s work doing something he was very good at and presumably enjoyed very much. Whatever the interpretation, his ability as well as his impact on jazz and/or/a.k.a. American popular music is undeniable. He was right there next to some of music’s greatest names, as much by his choice as theirs. Maybe Larry Binyon was simply exactly where he wanted to be.

LarryBinyonCareOfDiscogsDotCom

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“It’s WHAT Like That?!” On Grey Gull

With lyrics that are racy, funny and at times liberatingly void of meaning, “It’s Tight Like That” was bound to be a hit. Composers Tampa Red (aka Hudson Whittaker, nee Woodbridge) and Georgia Tom (aka Thomas A.) Dorsey’s recording sold well and inspired several contrafacts by their fellow blues musicians. Jazz musicians added their own arrangements, rhythm, improvisations and personality to the tune itself.

McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra, Walter Barnes’s Royal Creolians and others didn’t keep all the naughty words. An Irving Mills-led edition of the Ben Pollack band without Pollack threw them out completely. Yet even with several stanzas intact, the Grey Gull House Band’s interpretation takes the tune further out than any other (listen below or click here):

It’s not just the breakneck tempo and machine gun attack. There’s a sense of abandon bordering on aggression, mixed with a sense of play, to this treatment. Mike Mosiello’s trumpet sets the mood: in both solo and lead, it’s loud, staccato, brash and at the same time warm and humorous. When Mosiello and trombonist Charlie Butterfield’s signals get crossed, the first notes of a trombone solo turn into a brass duet cum dogfight. That’s professionalism! Mosiello was already established as one of the most in-demand studio musicians of the time. It’s easy to reconcile the image of a disciplined session player and the sound of this unbridled powerhouse. The man was just versatile.

FromAMGdotComThe Grey Gull House Band, like any (good) house band, thrived upon versatility, having to adapt to a variety of musical settings according to the company/publisher/vocalist. That’s probably why Mosiello’s fellow Grey Gull sidemen Andy Sannella and Charlie Magnante sound so sincerely unbuckled, Sannella in a punchy alto saxophone solo without a hint of decorousness, Magnante’s accordion running rampant in the background.

Accordion, whistle and barnyard onomatopoeia may edge this performance into “novelty;” even the speed and feel veer on self-parody. Yet “performance” is the keyword here, a mixing bowl of jazz jam and vaudeville with a hint of the circus tent. Vaughn De Leath’s vaguely androgynous contralto crooning the blues is another interesting touch. When she glides up to hold a high note and the unidentified tuba player goes into pumping double-time, you can almost see Tampa Red and Georgia Tom shaking their heads. This blogger isn’t speculating whether it would be in disapproval or disbelief.

MosielloWithLopezCareOfBixographyDotCom

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More Music, That Pop

Thank George for sharing Richard Hamilton’s definition of “pop art”:

CareOfOperaCreepOnTwitter

“Pop Art” does refer to a very specific visual arts movement of the mid-twentieth century, but I thought I’d abuse the term and apply Hamilton’s criterion to some of the music bandied about on this blog (just click to enlarge):

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 11.36.19 AMAs far as the scores go, Vivaldi comes out as the most “pop” while Mozart gets the lowest score, which should satisfy most professional music historians. King Oliver and the California Ramblers tying is sure to irritate jazz purists; Oliver would probably just be happy, and surprised, to know that people are still listening to his music.

I’m happy to justify these scores and be proven wrong in the process.  The scoreboard also includes a few blank columns so you can do your own critical introspection (or vivisection) at home!

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