The Early, Standard Bennie Moten Band

library-umkc-eduOn December 13, 1932, Bennie Moten brought a new band into the studio for what would become a watershed moment in American music. The band cut a whopping ten sides that day, including “The Blue Room, Lafayette, Toby” and “Moten Swing.”

The reconstituted Moten band plays with a smooth, flexible beat not heard on its previous recordings. The players have internalized Louis Armstrong’s rhythmic-narrative concepts and the riff-based arrangements galvanize Hot Lips Page, Ben Webster and Count Basie. String bass, the equivalent of the opposable thumb in jazz evolution, has also replaced tuba in the rhythm section.

These records would influence generations of musicians, come to be considered classics of the Kansas City style, inspire pages of commentary and regularly gain entry into Smithsonian compilations and other jazz history digests. Commentators still discuss this band and this date as though it were the one that finally got things right.

The remainder i.e. the bulk of Moten’s nine-year discography is often discussed as some vestigial step on the way to greatness. At best, it’s heard as charming in a naive, even primitive manner but merely of “historical interest.” More often terms like “stiff, lacking in virtuosity” and “hokum” (read, “commercial” and therefore “insincere”) are batted around.

Personally, I could listen to the entire Moten discography all day long but keep coming back to a few sides from 1929.

More stomp than swing, with Vernon Page’s tuba (!) proudly puffing two (!) beats per bar and the influence of ragtime, shouting blues, marching bands and snippets of vaudeville on top of a chunky, chugging rhythm, this Moten ensemble makes its 1932 Platonic form seem slick by comparison. Slow tunes unfold like the laziest country drawl and faster numbers burn with an agitated feel that never completely settles down but still satisfies on its own terms. The less-than-airtight sections have all the warmth one might expect from ten familiar musicians jamming together, rather than the lean, tightly drilled aesthetic that would dominate the swing era and continues to shape big bands.

Its soloists had heard Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington and Paul Whiteman and may have enjoyed that music but still stick to their guns in terms of tone, phrasing and even technique. Trumpeter Ed Lewis’s playing is not between the beats or beyond the bar lines but still punchy, with a crackling tone and its own strutting delivery. Woody Walder, critically despised for his novelty effects on the earliest Moten sides (which might have scored more points had they come from an Ellington sideman or an avant-garde composer) turns out to be a convincing blues player on clarinet and tenor sax, with his own intense, sweaty and completely ballsy voice. Trombonist Thamon Hayes doesn’t get the same amount of solo space but his gutty approach reveals another confident musician working with the tools at his disposal. That’s praise for what he played, not condescension at what he didn’t play. More than a matter of stylistic conservatism or musical immaturity, the band simply has its own unique, very personal sound.

That sound worked well for Moten and his audiences for several years. Walder and Hayes had played with Moten since his first recording session and the band mostly revolved around a core of the same players. Yet after a disappointing tour, Moten fired Walder as well as tuba player Page, lead alto Harlan Leonard and lead trumpet Booker Washington. Lewis and Hayes resigned shortly after and Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra had room for some new faces. Moten was ready for a change and it paid off for him in terms of posterity.

Decades of jazz history syllabi make it easy to say that Moten did the right thing, but it’s more accurate to say that he just tried something different. What was different for Moten is now the basis for the jazz of a post-Armstrong/Basie/Parker continuum. Meanwhile, Moten’s “regular old band” is now the surprise to us. Yet jazz is supposedly all about surprise, and it worked for Bennie Moten, didn’t it?

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Bass Clarinet Buster

Walter C. Allen’s massive discography of the Fletcher Henderson band lists either Don Redman or Buster Bailey as the bass clarinet soloist on three takes of “Why Couldn’t It Be Poor Little Me?” Historian John Chilton is more precise in his award-winning The Song Of The Hawk, praising Bailey alone for the “admirable” bass clarinet of these records [starting at about 1:35 into takes one, two and three below]:



Bailey’s runs and arpeggios, confident octaves and solid tone on the B-flat soprano clarinet are much closer to these bass clarinet solos than the smears and whinnies that Redman brought to the standard clarinet (unless Redman was really keeping his skill under wraps). Bailey was probably the more serious student of the clarinet and definitely the happiest of the group to play it: several writers have documented that neither Redman nor third reed Coleman Hawkins enjoyed playing clarinet. It’s hard to imagine Redman applying an unexpectedly proficient approach to the larger, unwieldier version of an instrument he disliked. As for Hawkins, it’s definitely his C melody saxophone following the bass clarinet, practically stepping on it during take two.

Process of elimination notwithstanding, the bass clarinet on the three takes of “Why Couldn’t It Be Poor Little Me?” and the bonafide Bailey obbligato on two takes of Henderson’s “Copenhagen” all feature similar rapid-fire intervals and a distinct intensity:


There is also Bailey’s sound. Commenters have pointed to Bailey’s shrill top notes but his chalumeau was always rich, centered and as warm as his upper register was bright. The second half of the third take’s solo really drives the connection home. For further comparison, check out Bailey’s brief but rewarding dips into the lower register on a trio recording of “Papa De Da Da” from a few months later:

For further enjoyment, listen to Bailey’s bass clarinet decades later on his own composition “Big Daddy And Baby Sister”:

For that matter, check out back-to-back-to-back Bailey on all three “Why Couldn’t It Be Poor Little Me?” bass clarinet solos, excerpted from each take in sequential order:

The oaken sound of the instrument, Bailey leaning into blue notes and stretching the tune into jittery noodles is an effective bridge between Louis Armstrong’s searing licks and Hawkins’s hefty C melody sax. It’s no surprise that so much has been written about Armstrong and Hawkins from this period, but it’s interesting to focus on Bailey. Apparently the arranger (Redman?) thought so: the Henderson band had already recorded Isham Jones’s new tune a few days earlier but now added this chorus just for Bailey, in stop time for further effect.

Also interesting is the use of the bass clarinet itself. The instrument didn’t exactly have a renaissance during the twenties but pops up often enough to make an impression. Eric Dolphy and others bass clarinetists garner more attention in jazz histories than Bailey, Bobby Davis or Johnny O’Donnell. The assumption seems to be that a musician playing bass clarinet in a twenties dance band did it for the sake of commercial novelty while the postwar generation were sincere experimentalists. Thank goodness is it is easier to decode soloists than historical classifications!


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A Dillon Ober Scrapbook

This post supplements an earlier one about Dillon Ober, based upon my access to further resources and desire to shed as much light as I can on this obscure, rewarding musician.  So the Dillon Ober story continues, and yes, so does this blog’s story.  Thank you for reading.

With just thirty record sessions spread out over less than five years under a handful of bandleaders and zero solos, Dillon Ober still earns respect from listeners who are fortunate enough to know his name. Best known as a drummer for Jack Pettis and Ben Bernie, he stays in the background on record yet lights up their bands, like a compact, white-hot lamp burning from behind stained glass.  Ober’s concise recorded legacy is easy enough to follow, twice as rewarding to listen for, but outside of the recording studio he was apparently much more than a sideman.

His skills as a percussionist, vocalist and stage cutup are spotlighted from the outset with the Mason Dixon Seven, his first “name band.”  The Mason Dixon Seven itself, which also included brothers Art and Ted Weems, was apparently very popular, gigging across Pennsylvania and earning local praise (even being remembered fondly in periodicals years later):

19211118 The News-Herald of Franklin, PA on Nov 18, 1921

19211118 The Oil City Derrick of Oil City, PA on Nov 18, 1921

19230511 Altoona Tribune of Altoona, PA on May 11, 1923

19230917 The News-Herald of Franklin, PA on Sep 17, 1923

19231130 The News-Herald of Franklin, PA on Nov 30, 1923 About a year before his first recordings in New York City with Pettis, Ober fronted a band under the auspices of Bernie himself:
19250623 The Daily News of Mount Carmel, PA on June 23, 1925 This article mentions an “attraction direct from Broadway” yet Bernie’s Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra was firmly installed at the posh Manhattan hotel.   Even more odd,  another article from the same paper mentions Ober right alongside “the Old Maestro” himself!
19250702 The Daily News of Mount Carmel, PA on July 2, 1925 Typo? Name dropping? Either way, Bernie must have had some experience with Ober prior to his arrival in New York City, perhaps relying on Ober to direct bands contracted by Bernie for work around Pennsylvania.  Most revealing is that Ober had led at least one band and was in the spotlight before coming to New York City.  Showing a knack for good copy, Ober even describes his group as “the last word in fine dance music,” with further notices afterward:

19250728 The Evening Standard of Uniontown, PA on July 28, 1925

19250801 The Morning Herald of Uniontown, PA on August 1, 1925

19250804 The Morning Herald of Uniontown, PA on August 4, 1925

19250812 The Morning News of Danville, PA on Aug 12, 1925

19251022 The Scranton Republican of PA on Oct 22, 1925

The “Dillon Ober Orchestra” (record collectors, be on the lookout for a potential Rust oversight!) even found time to make it to Brooklyn, NY:

19251003 Brooklyn Life and Activities of Long Island Society on Oct 3, 1925

By November of 1925, Ober aka “The Musical Sheik” is even being billed sans accompaniment:
19251104 The Bridgeport Telegram of CT on Sep 4, 1925

19260422 The Cedar Rapids Republican of Cedar Rapids, IA on April 22, 1926

By (at least) December 1926, Ober was in New York City at his first recording session with Pettis, going on to complete his recorded legacy periodically throughout the next four and a half years with Pettis, Irving Mills and eventually as a replacement for Sam Fink in the Brunswick studios with Bernie’s band.  By May 1928 he also begins to appear in acting credits, such the Here’s Howe, with music by Roger Wolfe Kahn:

19280502 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on May 2, 1928

He continues to play with Bernie through August 1931 while apparently functioning as “chief clown” for his band.  Ober’s appeal may have been more than strictly musical (but records show he could more than hold his own as a musician).

19300325 The Daily Notes of Canonsburg, PA on Mar 25, 1930

19300325 The Evening Standard of Uniontown, PA on Mar 25, 1930

Apparently not tied down to Bernie, Ober pops up on a double xylophone bill alongside percussion pioneer Billy Gladstone:

19310111 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on Jan 11, 1931

Ober moved to the West Coast some time in the mid-thirties, playing in studio orchestras and continuing to build his acting resume:

19361024 The Evening News of Harrisburg, PA on Oct 24, 1936

It’s hard to tell the context, but here is a rare (admittedly blurry) photo of Ober himself!

19380329 Warren Times Mirror of Warren, PA on Mar 29, 1938

Amidst a no doubt busy schedule, Ober apparently also found time to entertain his mother-in-law, visiting from their hometown of Clarksburg, WV:

19400422 Santa Ana Register of CA on Apr 22, 1940

Finally, here is notice of Ober finishing out his career with military service:

19420921 Santa Ana Register of CA on Sep 21, 1942His obituary outlines a long, varied and popular career (as well as an untimely death):

19470627 Cumberland Evening Times of MD on June 27, 1947 1

19470627 Cumberland Evening Times of MD on June 27, 1947 2

19470627 Cumberland Evening Times of MD on June 27, 1947 3

19470627 Cumberland Evening Times of MD on June 27, 1947 4Dillon Ober: entertainer, bandleader, family man and veteran, as well as multifaceted percussionist and discographical mystery man (hopefully less so now).

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closedThank you for reading, for commenting, for sharing, for your encouragement and above all for making this a great conversation. Keep listening and learning.  I know that I will!

P.S. Due to a high volume of spam, I had to turn off comments on all previous posts.

Straight Off the 78 And Not On YouTube…

…Ross Gorman‘s band featuring Red Nichols, a guitar/baritone sax duet and a creamy sax trio (listen here or below):

Worth sharing.  Enjoy.

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Vivaldi Versus The World

We live in challenging times. We can debate whether these are the grimmest of times or if we are simply more connected with their every component tragedy. Yet all of the screens, windows, channels, pages, devices and voices sharing the bad news, the good news, the breaking news, the ongoing stories and the same old crap is a challenge to the human mind unlike any it has faced before. Where does it focus? What does that even mean anymore?

A piece of music like the middle movement of Vivaldi’s Oboe Concerto in A Minor (RV 463) offers refreshingly few options:

Just a single instrument playing a single line over a functional, lockstep accompaniment: Vivaldi leaves only one path for the listener’s attention span, as if asking, “what else do you need, or want, exactly?”

The idea of fixing onto a single anything without checking our email or expecting an explosion (in our art or our newsfeed) can seem quaint, naive, unrealistic, even selfish. Focus on a piece of music? Grab onto an old, “pretty” work like this, with its simple lead and accompaniment format? Follow this soliloquy of pitches and rhythms, hear where it goes, listen for the way the soloist decorates the line, the harmonies Vivaldi lays under it, the tapping of fingers, the exhalation of breath or some other sign of another human being concentrating on one thing and one thing alone?

That is a challenge.



What does it all mean? Don’t ask me, ask the composer (or leave that to Al Rose):
"Wang Wang Blues" from I REMEMBER JAZZ by Al Rose
Thanks for reading.



Andrew J. Sammut:

A writing teacher one told me to avoid using the word “beautiful.” Well, Michael Steinman’s post about Johnny Windhurst and Jack Gardner is simply beautiful.

I try to cover obscure musicians on my blog, but after reading his post I not only want to hear more of Windhurst and Gardner’s music (and I haven’t even listened to the clip yet), I want to know more about the musicians themselves.

It’s also heartwarming to hear about people like Ms. Taylor, who in this context was “just a fan” but is responsible for preserving this music decades after the scholars and critics would have skipped it and written another biography of Miles Davis. The reference to trading tapes is another uplifting reminder of a time before everything was tagged and downloadable, when people shared music, talked about it and perhaps even got to know one another in the process.

We have come so far yet lost so much when it comes to hearing history, but we always have people like Michael Steinman, and as a result “Gypsy,” Johnny, Jack, Archie Semple and so many others. That is beautiful.

Originally posted on JAZZ LIVES:

When I returned to my apartment in New York, I thought, “I need music in here. Music will help remind me who I am, what I am supposed to be doing, where my path might lead.”  Initially I reached for some favorite performances for consolation, then moved over to the crates of homemade audiocassettes — evidence of more than twenty-five years of tape-trading with like-minded souls.

One tape had the notation PRIVATE CHICAGO, and looking at it, I knew that it was the gift of Leonora Taylor, who preferred to be called “Gypsy,” and who had an unusual collection of music.  When I asked drummer / scholar Hal Smith about her, he reminded me that she loved the UK clarinetist Archie Semple. Although I don’t recall having much if any Archie to offer her, we traded twenty or thirty cassettes.

PRIVATE CHICAGO had some delightful material recorded (presumably) at the…

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Listen To/With Arthur Rollini

Adrian and Art Rollini 1937 care of Colin Aitchison via FlickrPeer through any “Top Ten Tenors” list and you just won’t find Arthur Rollini. When he’s remembered at all, it’s for his time with Benny Goodman’s epoch-making mid-thirties swing band. Yet as the title of Rollini’s autobiography indicates, he was a skilled enough saxophonist (and apparently devoted yet ultimately disappointed flutist) to make a career of Thirty Years With The Big Bands. Besides Goodman, Rollini played with sweet bandleader (and apparently very crass person) Richard Himber, the exacting, progressive-minded Raymond Scott and on a slew of pickup dates with a variety of jazz legends. Rollini must have done something right.

Rollini also had big ears to match that big talent. Alongside stories about life on the road, romantic boondoggles and references to “thoughtless…fickle…inconsiderate, etc. Benny [Goodman]!” his memoir is a who’s-who of pre-war talent. Far from name-dropping or even scattered recollection, Rollini effectually offers a listening guide to some now-forgotten musicians, artists who may not have all been innovators but were on bandstands and in recording studios making the music.

Here is Rollini’s extensive list of favorites, excerpted from his book in their order of appearance (emphases mine):

ArtRolliniBookCoverFromOpenLibraryDOTorgIrving (Babe) Russin, who played fine tenor sax…Mario Lorenzi, also a good jazz harpist…Fred Elizalde, who was only twenty-three years old himself, a Cambridge graduate who played fantastic piano and arranged brilliantly…Bobby Davis, first alto sax…had a beautiful tonal quality on alto and baritone sax…Matty Malneck, a fine violin player (both concert and jazz)…

Hymie Schertzer was now playing first alto sax [in Benny Goodman’s band]. Bill DePew was on the other alto sax, and Dick Clark and I were on tenors. It was a good sax section!…To this day Ziggy Elman had the most powerful sound that I have ever heard…Harry James was a genius. He could read all of the highly syncopated charts at sight, and he played fantastic jazz solos, different every time…also a good conductor and a fine arranger…Babe Russin, a great tenor man…no match for Vido [Musso]’s strong tone but made up for it with his keen ear and great drive…a good reader and read off all the charts at sight…Murray McEachern…a great talent…I must state emphatically, though, that the 1937-38 [Goodman] band was the best! Apart from Hymie Shertzer, who could swing a great lead alto sax, this band consisted entirely of jazz soloists of great talent…

Hank D’Amico…was one man who did not try to imitate Goodman. He had a distinctive style of his own, and, as they now say, ears. He could read and transpose almost anything…Joe [Viola] was a schooled clarinet player and an excellent sax man…Ralph Muzillo…with an extremely strong sound and drive, was on first trumpet…Sid Stoneburn, a good clarinet player…Al Gallodoro, in my estimation the best technician of our day…could read and transpose almost anything; he was a self-taught musician and would often practice six or eight hours a day. He could double tongue, triple tongue on alto with ease and was magnificent…Abe [Osser] had absolute pitch…such a keen ear that he could detect a wrong passing note by one of the obscure violinists and could out the right one…Phil Napoleon, the fine Dixieland trumpeter…Johnny Bruno, a fine jazz accordion player…

…To this day, I think that Benny Goodman was still the greatest all-around clarinet player…a creator and influenced many players of his instrument throughout the world. I’ll have to give the number two spot to Artie Shaw, who was so great. The rest are up for grabs: Johnny Mince, Tony Scott, Peanuts Hucko, Barney Bigard, Pete Fountain, Abe Most, Buddy DeFranco, Gus Bivona, Hank D’Amico, Phil Bodner, Walter Levinsky, Mahlon Clark, Matty Matlock, Joe Dixon, Woody Herman, Clarence Hutchenrider, Sol Yaged, Bob Wilber, Buster Bailey, Marshall Royal, Joe Viola, Artie Baker, Paul Ricci, Tony Parenti, Jimmy Lytell, Sal Pace, Pete Pumiglio, Sal Franzella, Drew Page, Izzy Friedman and newcomer Dick Johnson

Don’t forget Arthur Rollini! I’m willing to assume he knew his stuff and look forward to (re)hearing all of these musicians.


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