Don Murray On Alto Sax?

Thinking on paper…

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

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

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

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


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

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

Honestly, just a thought.

Berklee Pierces The Membranophone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Al Weber, All About All The Basses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Carpe Opscaeni

Nuance, originality of style and above all depth of inquiry: each one is more useless than the last on the Internet. When in Rome rebooted do as the Redditers do, so today I’m hate-linking to one of the worst examples of “writing” about prewar jazz I have ever encountered, right here.

It’s not just the knowingly cynical headline or casual to the point of camp (every hipster’s secret weapon that turns out to be facing the wrong direction) tone. Generalization takes the place of history here, sarcasm the place of insight. At least one intelligent, sincere source has praised Mr. Wondrich’s Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924 as a later departure away from that style, yet this nearly sixteen year old article sticks out like a middle finger on the author’s resume.

So why dredge this article up? Aside from trying on the snark that seems so popular on other websites, Wondrich’s piece turned up on the third page of results for a simple web query on “Don Murray clarinet.” So this is what some curious person will discover about a great musician and early jazz more generally in their own research. That, um, kinda’ annoyed this unpaid, non-professional pseudo-writer.

See that? I can do it too!

Catching Up With The California Ramblers

It’s fun to imagine regular readers of this blog asking between posts, “What is Andrew listening to now? Where is he? What is he going to post about next?” Imagining all that assumes regular readership, which is a flattering idea that I have no way of either proving or disproving.   Yet the Internet is a great place for conjecture as well as self-flattery, so let’s assume such questions are being raised and take them one at a time.

Photo from Timeless CD CBC 1-090 via @onlyapaprmoon

Photo from Timeless CD CBC 1-090 via @onlyapaprmoon

I have spent the past few weeks listening almost exclusively to the California Ramblers, near-obsessively picking through the hundreds of sessions the band recorded under multiple aliases and in various combinations from around 1924 through the early thirties. Even with all that variety, I’d answer that I’ve been listening to one uniquely New Yorkian territory band. The Ramblers’ sound is an alloy of polish and pep, forged by young, technically proficient players experimenting with improvisation, jazz rhythm and ensemble interplay. They just happened to be based in and no doubt influenced by the professional entertainment capital of the country. Open-eared historian Allen Lowe described the Ramblers’ recordings as “high definition glossy, but never merely slick” and asserts that the band counted “some of the best white jazz musicians of the twenties” among its ranks. Leader and bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini contributed both nimble, creative solos as well as flexible, interactive bass lines; it’s no surprise that he has been covered extensively elsewhere. I’ve reflected on the lesser-known gifts of reed player Bobby Davis and drummer Stan King in previous posts. The Ramblers’ revolving trumpet chair alone is a sort of mini conservatory of white, pre-Armstrong players. Depending on the date or label, you can hear the chatter and squawk of Bill Moore (a light-skinned African American whose career is now bound up with white jazz and who I’ve also written about previously): flip, acrobatic Red Nichols: Roy Johnston’s clipped, archaic to the point of avant-garde attack: and Chelsea Quealey’s lithe, Beiderbeckian lines: They’re all spread out over a range of instrumental combinations, from freewheeling trumpet over rhythm section to tightly arranged tentets.  All of these combinations famously reconfigured stock arrangements and their ingenuity adds novel twists to even the most sing-songy pop ephemera, such as the intriguing, harmonically novel introductions on the Goofus Five’s “‘Ya Gotta’ Know How To Love“: or the Golden Gate Orchestra’s “Heart Breakin’ Baby“: The Varsity Eight reinvents the nonsensical “Doodle-Doo-Doo” as an outight hot jazz instrumental: and Quealey’s conversational lead redeems “I Left My Sugar Standing In The Rain” for the Goofus Five in the face of singer Beth Challis’s weapons grade corn: Their approach to more familiar jazz material, some of which was already well-worn in their own time, illuminates what made those tunes so fecund in the first place. There’s a richness and inevitable velocity to the Five Birmingham Babies’ recording of “Copenhagen” despite there being just six players: The Goofus Five apply a simmering, riff-based approach to “Everybody Loves My Baby” (that’s all the more remarkable taking place several years before Count Basie and Miles Davis): It’s hard to pinpoint a core repertoire for the group since they seem to soak up everything.  Their return trips to “Vo-Do-Do-De-O Blues” and “Deep Sea Blues” hint at a California Ramblers repertoire, applying variations in tempo, arrangement and feel to tunes that don’t appear to have caught on with other groups: Even the often overlooked post-Rollini Ramblers band, which Richard M. Sudhalter analogized as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the Rollini-era band’s Hamlet, offers plenty of enthusiastic, cleverly arranged experiences: All that time with the Ramblers music has made me feel like I’m touring various Manhattan studios, places for recording engineers and company personnel to consult and/or argue with musicians, spaces where creativity and commerce vie for time, which of course is money. I step over Rollini’s bass sax, couesnophone and hot fountain pen and between Bobby Davis’s clarinet, soprano and alto saxophones, all within arm’s reach because they’re likely to be used on the same three-minute performance. Stan King takes up more or less room depending on the date or label, either relegated to just cymbals and kazoo or bearing down on his full drum kit. I’m constantly bumping into piles of sheet music, veteran jazz tunes and Tin Pan Alley newborns strewn about, in some cases their ink still drying and in others their paper soon to line birdcages. This whole musical continuum feels quintessentially Jazz Age New York: busy, crowded, cramped, proudly intense and earnestly upbeat, rarely if ever settling in one spot and eagerly biting into whatever’s in front of it, even while occasionally smirking while chowing down. It’s just another rewarding vestigial limb on the tree of jazz history.

Irving Brodsky - Piano  Left to Right: Ray Kitchingham, Stan King, Bill Moore and Adrian Rollini

Irving Brodsky – Piano
Left to Right: Ray Kitchingham, Stan King, Bill Moore and Adrian Rollini

So much for my listening and location. As for what I’m going to write about,  I’m still unsure because I don’t have any particular insight to offer about the California Rambler’s music, even after extensive binge-listening.  At this point I feel like I’ve spent several hours in front of a Rembrandt and can only “conclude” that the artist was Dutch, that he painted portraits and his painting has the air of seventeenth century Europe. The Ramblers’ gargantuan discography, with so much to savor, so consistently well-executed as well as infectiously joyous, doesn’t help things.  It’s easier for me to penetrate Bennie Moten’s music, not because his ragtime cum blues stomp-down style is “simpler” but because there is simply less of it to parse out. Ditto for Clarence Williams’s airy, Southern-infused textures and sophisticated balance between soloist and ensemble or even Ray Miller’s aggressive Midwestern punch.  It’s much harder to find an earhold onto the Ramblers’ sheer musical mountain. Unfortunately generalization, nostalgia and personal impressions hardly get to the bottom of anything other than the writer’s navel, so I’ll just have to keep listening to this music.  Insights about what made the band tick musically, beyond the personnel listings and matrix numbers, are welcome from anyone who stuck around long enough to get through this latest post (even if you’re sorry that anyone asked the questions that got us here).

In the meantime, I can’t help but think about some advice that singer/songwriter Bill Withers gave to a group of young musicians: he suggested they think long and hard about the resources, dedication and above all ability needed to become a professional musician, reminding them that just because a person likes sex it doesn’t necessarily mean they should become a pimp. I’m not playing music but I am trying to say something productive about it.  Maybe I should have just said “bravo!” and called it a day.

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Aversion and A Few Versions of “Doodle Doo Doo”

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Remember the American idea of popular music is totally different from the Continental. [In America] we take a popular song as the starting point and interpolate it to suit our own ideas.
-David Berend, “Tenor Banjo Questions” in Metronome, January 1929 (quoted by Lawrence Gushee for “Improvisation and Related Terms In Middle Period Jazz,” in Musical Improvisation: Art, Education and Society)

Some bands and artists [during the twenties] had devoted fans, but most customers were apparently still shopping for songs rather than specific performances: They would hear “Whispering” or “When Francis Dances with Me,” go to a music store, and ask for a record of it…if the [version they heard] were out of stock most people were happy to go home with an alternate version…
-Elijah Wald, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music

A music lover was passing a pet shop one afternoon when he heard something that sounded like a bird singing dixieland jazz. Unbelieving, he hurried inside and beheld a big, beautiful bird in a splendid cage, giving out a spirited rendition of “The Saints.” Our music lover asked the proprietor, “Is that bird for sale?”
The proprietor nodded: “One thousand dollars for both birds, and that’s a bargain.”
The music lover now noticed a second bird in the shadowy corner of the cage: scrawny, with disheveled feathers and in sore need of a bath. This small wreck of a bird stood uncertainly, swaying now and then, occasionally blinking a bloodshot eye, sometimes sipping from a container of amber liquid.
The music music lover said, “I want the big bird that sings! You can keep that other one.”
The owner quickly replied, “You’ll have to take both birds or none at all. The little bird is the big one’s arranger.”
-Earle M. Moss in The Jazz State of Indiana by Duncan Schiedt

White jazz of the twenties was far from monolithic, though sometimes a little confused by its own vague notions of just what jazz was and by its chronic failure to distinguish between the real thing and novelty effect.
-Allen Lowe, That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History, 1900-1950

Oo-pop-a-da,
be aba du la,
be bly bop…
-Babs Gonzalez, “Oo-Pop-A-Da” [verbal transcription care of Steve Provizer]

MelStitzelCareOfKinnearReactionsDotComA new song might receive dozens of different recordings during the twenties, with record companies scrambling musicians to ensure that their label offered the latest hit to customers rifling through record shelves. Companies just sought a profit while musicians just needed a paycheck and consumers just wanted a catchy melody and/or danceable beat.

So goes the common wisdom about this era in American music. A hit from 1924 indicates that at least a few people in that iron triangle wanted more.

“Doodle Doo Doo,” written by “Sobbin’ Blues” and “Tin Roof Blues” composer Mel Stitzel, probably looked promising to sight reading studio players and discriminating record buyers. On the other hand, Art Kassel’s lyrics were the type of novelty that would continue to spellbound audiences through “ooh, eee, ooh-aah-aah,ting, tang, wallawalla-bingbang” right up to “zig-a-zig-ah.” Jeffrey Magee lists them as another instance of the craze for tunes with the word “doodle” in them, and this example worked like a charm for Eddie Cantor. David A. Jasen describes “Doodle Doo Doo” as another hit for the singer/comedian, whose signature phrasing and chutzpah helped sell many tunes:

Cantor is backed by a jazzy small group (mostly sticking to the printed sheet music) but his performance is all about the silly lyrics.  Jasen also notes that “Doodle Doo Doo” became a dance hit for Ray Miller and Jack Linx, whose recordings (for Brunswick and Okeh, respectively) were cut within weeks of Cantor’s Columbia side. Perhaps they were given a boost by Cantor’s vocal rendition, or the record-buying public had enough of Kassel’s lyrics.

Miller’s Chicago big band features strong brass and creamy sax sections selling the melody, Miff Mole and Frank Trumbauer providing solo variations and not a single vocal:


No one was playing saxophone and trombone like Trumbauer and Mole. Miller was both business savvy and musically minded:  he provides a smooth, medium-tempo beat for dancers that also allows listeners to savor his soloists’ elegant work. Roy Johnston’s trumpet on the verse may be dismissed as “dated,” but next to such polished company its clip and growl adds variety as well as humor.

Jack Linx’s Society Serenaders probably offered ample variety for audiences accustomed to Cantor’s earnest but slick delivery. It’s unclear whether Okeh’s mobile recording unit predicted success with this or any other tune from the Birmingham-based group, or whether listeners appreciated its approach as more than hillbilly exotica [skip ahead to 2:50 into the clip below for “Doodle Doo Doo”]:

Whatever else they made of it, people heard a territory band jamming on a pop song to its own country beat, without any attempts by banjoist/singer Maurice Sigler at drawling “Ah lahk the rest, but what ah lahk best….” The record’s popularity evidences the wide open possibilities for both sales and music at this point in American popular music.

Even if audiences were just looking for something to dance to, many musicians stepped up with more than a metronomic beat. Adrian Rollini and the California Ramblers, d/b/a the Varsity Eight for the Cameo label in May, throw out the lyrics but keep the melody for their hot small group instrumental:

Ray Kitchingham’s banjo keeps things strutting before Bill Moore’s trumpet buzzes in and sparks things with a spare paraphrase over Stan King’s cymbal cuts. A chase between Bobby Davis’s alto and Rollini’s bass saxophones on the verse is followed by bass clarinet decorating the chorus.

The Georgians, recording “Doodle Doo Doo” two days later for Columbia, also mine plenty of textural and rhythmic variety from a supposed novelty song using different musical resources:

The Varsity Eight builds up from its leader’s bass saxophone in the rhythm section while the Georgians let leader Frank Guarente’s trumpet drive things from the top. Following sustained chords in the intro, he leads a jittery New York-style collective improvisation, followed by a very a la mode sax section with Arthur Schutt’s piano tickling around it. The verse is then used like a riff, building up steam before the succeeding chorus reconfigures Stitzel’s syncopations on the upbeat. Guarente then returns with some King Oliver-inspired muted trumpet.

Twenties jazz was all about variety, all the more remarkable when a band was making what may have been the second, fifth or tenth recording of the same tune that year (or month). Ben Bernie and His Orchestra got around to “Doodle Doo Doo” for Vocalion a few weeks later than Cantor but after several other instrumental versions. His take is one of those distinctly overstuffed twenties arrangements that may or may not have had listeners humming but which must have made an impression on them; the band spins a tapestry of kazoo, bluesy chalumeau clarinet, talking trombone, crying saxophones, band vocal, banjo pickin’ and a minor key “exotica” section for bass clarinet and muted trumpets:

Bernie offers plenty of instrumental shtick with some purely musical rewards, such as the opening “doo-wacka-doo” trumpets that work well as a busy counterpoint behind the saxes on the first chorus. The same texture is then inverted, with the trumpeter (Don Bryan?) now playing a “doo-wacka-doo”inspired solo with busy saxes behind it for a smirking, symmetrical and very smart effect.

Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra recorded “Doodle Doo Doo” for the Edison label in October as the Broadway Dance Orchestra, after all of the above recordings. Rather than trying to outdo anyone in terms of novelty or variety, the Lopez outfit keeps things simple and very personal:

Bob Effros’s trumpet is powerful but unflashy. The band works up a sturdy, straightforward groove. Aside from the intriguing clarinet/banjo duet and trombonist Dave Boyd, there is very little improvisation or clever orchestral variation. The band’s sound is enough: hot in its rhythms, warm in its textures, always confident and tight without seeming uptight. It may sound naive, but sometimes just the combination of several different instruments played by ten individuals yields exciting and very distinct results.

Even straightlaced performances such as that of the Benson Orchestra of Chicago aren’t necessarily just a matter of musicians reading their parts:


Proud and peppy, “le plus ultra of society dance music” interpolates a lush, violin-like saxophone variation into its chart, a dicty touch arranged for a jazz horn. Jasen mentions that their Victor recording (waxed in April) was another big seller. The music business of the twenties apparently had enough room to accommodate many different musical styles.

JackLinxBandCareOfAngelFireDotComThe outdated, profit-driven system that allowed allowed Eddie Cantor and Jack Linx to share sales might inform modern hindsight. It’s tempting to hear the Benson recording as the buttoned-up, commercial version of a mediocre song, outshined by what jazzier groups such as the Georgians had to say with the tune, which is in turn eclipsed by that group’s recordings of jazz instrumentals such as “Farewell Blues” before that’s all rendered obsolete by the music found in jazz history syllabi and Smithsonian boxed sets. It’s worth reconsidering the Benson band in the same light that Jazz Age consumers encountered it, as one of many groups, all working on the same tune within months or even weeks of one another, huddled in studios that may have been only a few blocks apart, making sense of the newest musical trend while splicing the sound audiences expected with the sounds they had to offer those listeners.

The musicians and recordings begin to express different musical priorities rather than advances or missteps, options rather than right or wrong answers. Some alternatives are more influential or musically sophisticated than others, some more likely to be grabbed off the shelf by twenty-first century ears, yet each one remains valid on its own terms.

That perspective is not only fairer to a band like that of “D. Onivas” but gives the listener something new to hear (rather than laugh at):

Onivas recorded “Doodle Doo Doo” for Perfect in May, opting to put some grit into its polished surfaces via Hymie Farberman’s growling trumpet “taking a Boston,” getting the band in on the jazz act on its own terms. What might have been a gimmick in 1924 musical gimmick can now be heard (enjoyed!) as the meeting of stylistic eras and musical ideas. It’s not Louis Armstrong trumpet, yet that doesn’t take anything away from the music.

DoodleDooDooCoverCareOfRareNonFictionDotComIt’s worth mentioning that recording industry politics and the racial environment surrounding them prevented Armstrong, his then-employer Fletcher Henderson, his (and Frank Guarente’s) teacher King Oliver, Ma Rainey, Doc Cook or any other Black musician from recording “Doodle Doo Doo” until well after World War II. That may seem like a dispensation, yet as working musicians those band probably would have appreciated a stab at such a popular song. More importantly, their absence closes off further musical possibilities from those musicians and this tune.

Years after its publication, Kassel would make “Doodle Doo Doo” his big band’s theme song, allowing younger generations to hear it throughout the thirties and forties. It was reincarnated as a campfire song and at least two more risque ones, also making a brief appearance in Elvis Presley’s 1969 film THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS. Even Broadway singer Mandy Patinkin saw fit to include it on one of his albums.

On the border between nostalgia and creativity, New Orleans pianist Armand Hug apparently remembered the tune fondly, recording a rolling, bluesy piano rendition in 1956 that grafted chord substitutions and contrapuntal bass lines onto Stitzel’s tune (with Phil Darois’s bass and Charlie Duke’s drums accompanying Hug with the finesse and understatement of a Baroque continuo):

Jazz blogger Michael Steinman recalls trombonist Vic Dickenson using “Doodle Doo Doo” as a key-changing exercise at gigs in the mid-seventies, modulating up one step with each chorus.  It hasn’t had much luck at jam sessions since, but who knows what the future may bring?  It may or may not be a “good song” but it is a song, and that is all a musician needs.

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ON MATTERS OF TASTE, HERSCHEL EVANS HAD DEFINITE VIEWS

Andrew J. Sammut:

Michael Steinman shares some vivid photos and revealing, funny as #@%$ anecdotes about tenor saxophonist Herschel Evans on his blog. Chances are if you’ve found my blog then you already know about Michael’s, but if you don’t, get thee to the Favorites bar!

It was also interesting to read that string bassist Walter Page chose to play sousaphone i.e. brass bass for certain numbers. Also fascinating is Evans’s apparent disdain for the instrument. It means that the Texan saxophonist must have been hearing other options in the rhythm section before his time with Basie, so much so that he developed a preference for one bass instrument over the other. Meanwhile Page himself, who pretty much did for string bass what Cervantes did for the novel and Haydn accomplished for the symphony, sought different textures in the bass chair. In other words, no bass instrument seemed to be an inevitability in prewar jazz!

Originally posted on JAZZ LIVES:

HERSCHEL FREDDIE 1937

A newly discovered photograph, circa 1937, of Freddie Green and Herschel Evans, thanks to Christopher Tyle from here.

Herschel “Tex” Evans, born in Denton, Texas, did not live to see his thirtieth birthday.  We are fortunate that he was a member of the very popular Count Basie band of 1937-39, thus there are Decca studio recordings and airshots, and that John Hammond set up many small-band record dates for Basie sidemen.  One can easily hear Herschel’s features with the band — BLUE AND SENTIMENTAL and DOGGIN’ AROUND — but some of the small-group recordings are not as often heard.  A sample below.

Here he is with a Harry James small group (among others, Vernon Brown, Jess Stacy, Walter Page, Jo Jones) for ONE O’CLOCK JUMP:

Mildred Bailey with Buck Clayton, Edmond Hall, Jimmy Sherman, Freddie Green, Walter Page, Jo Jones, IF YOU EVER SHOULD LEAVE:

from the same session…

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The Incredible (And Incredibly, Untold) Story Of Ben Whitted

Charlie Johnson band pic from Storyville 75

“Ben Whitted” elicits either blanks stares from most jazz listeners or the same reaction that “serpentine belt” receives from most car owners, namely recognition of the term as part of something important with little other explanation or interest. Aficionados know that Whitted kept Charlie Johnson’s sax section running during the twenties, and “sideman, section player” or perhaps “occasional soloist” usually suffice as background. Yet the sound of his clarinet on Johnson’s “Walk That Thing” sparks further curiosity:

It’s not Louis Armstrong altering the course of jazz or Lester Young providing the aesthetic inspiration for its next musical revolution. It is confident, exciting and distinct, which has to count for something in jazz, and makes Whitted worth knowing as more than discographical filler.

He was born Benjamin Harrison Whitted on April 20, 1895 in Durham, NC and attended college for one year before enlisting in the army on March 21, 1918. It’s likely that Whitted voluntarily joined, having missed both draft calls a year earlier. As a member of the 92nd Infantry Division “Buffalo Soldiers,” he attained the rank of band sergeant before being discharged less than a year after he joined (and three months before the Treaty of Versailles). By January of 1920, Whitted was living in Atlantic City with his wife Mamie and already working as a professional musician.

A year later he was in the recording studio for the first time, backing singer Mary Stafford yet difficult to hear due to acoustic as well as musical factors. On “Royal Garden Blues,” Whitted and another reed player get brief breaks on clarinet and alto saxophone but it’s hard to tell who plays which instrument:

The saxophone on “Crazy Blues” is more distinct yet just as anonymous:

IMG_3640Sound aside, the context for these two sides is telling. Stafford was the first African American woman to record for Columbia, and her material as well as rag-a-jazz accompaniment indicate that Columbia was trying to compete with Okeh’s Mamie Smith, who had already instituted the blues craze of the twenties with her own recording of “Crazy Blues.” “Royal Garden Blues” would become an instrumental jazz standard yet here receives a vocal treatment hot on the heels of Smith’s own rendition from the same month. Whitted was right there for an important transitional period between ragtime, blues and jazz, and taking part in the early stages of African Americans’ major entry into the recording industry.

The pianist on this session, Charlie Johnson, would continue to back Stafford during the early twenties while Whitted played at John O’Connor’s club on 135th Street (with young Benny Carter, twelve years Whitted’s junior, occasionally subbing for him to mixed reviews). By the mid-twenties Johnson was leading the house band at nearby Small’s Paradise and Whitted was in place at the gig now responsible for whatever notoriety he still has in jazz history.

Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra was a rival to Fletcher Henderson’s band at Roseland and already famous by the time Duke Ellington began his residency at The Cotton Club. It might have enjoyed a greater slice of the historical pie had Johnson recorded more or taken the band on tour. The Johnson band left behind just six sessions (including a previously unknown dimestore label session under the name “Jackson and His Souther Syncopators”), which are rarely mentioned in jazz history texts yet well-known and beloved among collectors. The group’s soloists, energy and pre-swing arrangements remain tantalizing hints of what Harlem audiences heard on a nightly basis for over a decade.

On record as well as in recollections by Johnson alumni, Whitted is overshadowed by trumpeters Jabbo Smith and Sidney De Paris, trombonist Jimmy Harrison and saxophonist/arrangers Benny Carter and Benny Waters. That may have been due to Whitted (according to trumpeter Herman Autrey) pulling double duty as lead alto and clarinet soloist, an unusual role at the time. Yet Whitted also held his own as a soloist, for example with an impassioned clarinet solo on “Paradise Wobble”:

He doesn’t play many notes, sticking to a declaratory, wailing style that hangs notes and lets them throb in the air. His tone is bright but never piercing in the manner of his contemporary Buster Bailey or acid like that of Pee Wee Russell. Like his work on “Walk That Thing,” Whitted barely takes breaths, instead throwing himself into each lick, lobbing unexpected intervals and phrasing more like a fiddler than a clarinetist. The smooth alto leading the bluesy sax soli is another nice touch by Whitted. “Birmingham Black Bottom” also includes Whitted’s obbligato during the collectively improvised section:

Far from being a section drone, Whitted filled an important, unique role in one of the most popularly and critically acclaimed bands of its time. Rex Stewart, remembering Whitted perhaps fifty years later, counts him among the “stalwarts” and “formidable exponents of the alto” of the time. Given his position in a popular Harlem band and reputation as a musician, it’s surprisingly that Whitted wasn’t busier in the studios, even with other bands. Maybe he didn’t need the extra work or didn’t have the same hustle as his colleagues. By the mid-twenties he was already taking care of his young daughter Marilyn (born approximately 1922) and perhaps one steady gig was enough.

Whitted did cut a few sides with the multitalented Clarence Williams throughout 1927 and 1928. Williams’s regular brass bassist, Cyrus St. Clair, is listed on most of the Johnson band sides, so it’s possible that St. Clair connected Whitted with Williams. The Williams sides are typical in their joyous atmosphere and clever arrangements for small group, and give Whitted a chance to exercise his reading and improvisatory abilities in a variety of settings. Whitted and Bennie Moten (a.k.a. Morten or Morton) are the double-clarinet front line on a breakneck “Candy Lips” and the lazy, almost completely arranged “Gravier Street Blues”:


Gravier Street Blues

“Black Snake Blues” puts Whitted in a more traditional New Orleans lineup with Williams regulars Ed Allen on cornet and Ed Cuffee on trombone and in another smoky clarinet duo alongside Arville Harris:

He also gets to play with New Orleans legend King Oliver while accompanying vocalist Katharine Henderson. Whitted’s clarinet is brief and admittedly scattered on “Do It, Baby” but the two-man sax section adds warmth and push to these sedate sides. Plus, that’s another legend Whitted was right next to:

With Williams, Whitted also gets to play with a much looser big band than he was used to with Johnson. Whitted adds two decorous breaks to “Watching The Clock” as Fletcher Henderson’s drummer Kaiser Marshall slaps away:

Williams, a sharp businessman with sharper ears, didn’t hire slouches and Whitted handles himself well in these more open contexts. Yet the Johnson band’s September 19, 1928 session features the best opportunity to hear Whitted (and in this blogger’s opinion the band’s most exciting work). Three takes of “Walk That Thing” exist, each one more energetic than the last and featuring Whitted punching his way out of the ensemble before the band’s swinging final chorus (a feature for the rhythm section, in 1928, no less):

It’s not just Whitted’s volume, clarity or place next to heavy-hitters de Paris and Harrison that is worthy of attention here. Lots of clarinetists were called upon for the type of half solo, half obbligato spot Whitted plays on “Walk That Thing.” Yet there’s neither the urbanity of New Orleans clarinetists or the busy approach of the Chicagoans here. Whitted gives his otherwise no-frills lines a brawny feel and percussive articulation just short of slap tongue. He is not “telling a little story” or looking to connect thematic dots but just playing hot, throwing himself into each phrase without so much as a breath between octaves. He’s also not improvising, something which few of his contemporaries would have held against him (so why should we?)

Whitted is probably also leading the clarinet trios and riffing sax sections on two takes of the “The Boy In The Boat.” This is what a Harlem nightclub revue had to offer white patrons touring uptown, and Harrison’s trombone and de Paris’s growling trumpet pile on the Jazz Age exotica. Whitted is the perfect foil to de Paris, getting just as down and dirty but listening to the main soloist, really responding to him and keeping the dynamic level low to keep the focus on him:

The Johnson band’s final recorded session includes more wailing Whitted on the gritty “Harlem Drag” and “Hot Bones And Rice” as well as his settling into a strutting groove on the (recently discovered) “Mo’lasses”:

In addition to Whitted’s skills as a reed player, Benny Waters explains that “Whitted special[ized] in working up arrangements based on famous solos from other band’s records, Bix [Beiderbecke]’s “Singing The Blues” for instance, and the band became famous for this sort of thing as well as original material scored by [Waters] and others.” Unfortunately there are no recorded or written remains of Whitted’s charts. Yet Waters sheds further light on what made the Johnson band such a hit in its time as well as what an asset Whitted was to the Johnson band, and potentially to others.

By 1930 Whitted was living with his wife and daughters Bernice and Marilyn (born 1928) while sharing an apartment on Convent Avenue in Harlem with his youngest brother James and his wife as well as Benny Waters (the contrast between family man Whitted and libertine Waters must have been worthy of a sitcom). His census records from this time also lists his industry as “night club,” indicating he may have still been part of the band at Small’s, or perhaps that was just one night club job of many.

He next appears on record with Eubie Blake’s big band for four dates in 1931, witnessing another interesting confluence of events: Blake, already an elder statesmen of ragtime and pre-jazz American music, now leading a big band and part of jazz and American popular music’s move towards even larger bands and fancier arrangements. Of course Whitted may have just thought of it as a job. He happily goes to work with the creamy yet never winnowing a la Guy Lombardo lead alto on “Two Little Blue Little Eyes” and on the gorgeous arrangement of “Blues In My Heart”:

The sax soli on “Sweet Georgia Brown” is also pretty slick, but the two clarinet spots on “St. Louis Blues” are easier to peg as belonging to Whitted:

The clarinet has the same signature intensity, hard articulation and throbbing high notes, yet now with some added growls. It’s harder to tell whether Whitted is playing and/or seen with the Blake band on this short film from 1931:

Herman Autrey describes Whitted as “terribly nearsighted and [wearing] such thick glasses that ‘he looked like Cyclops.’” Without a good view of the reeds in this film, the bespectacled alto player might be Whitted and the obbligato behind Nina McKinney’s vocal may belong to Whitted. Except for some especially fleet notes towards its end, the intense clarinet solo on “You Rascal You” also sounds like Whitted, but onscreen it is performed by another reedman, a shorter man without glasses! Adding to the confusion is the fact the few extant pictures of Whitted don’t show him wearing glasses.  It’s also a mystery whether Whitted contributed any charts to Blake’s big band, a group overlooked by historians and tacitly dismissed as a commercial endeavor but which produced some interesting transitional music between the Jazz Age and the swing era.

The Johnson band would continue on at Small’s Paradise through 1938 but it’s hard to say if or when Whitted quit the band. Autrey says that Fats Waller scouted him, Whitted and bassist Billy Taylor while hearing the band at Small’s in 1934. Benny Waters mentions playing alto alongside Benny Carter with Johnson in 1936. Even accounting for an expanded sax section, most bands at that time carried two altos and two tenors, meaning Whitted may have left the Johnson band by this point. Whitted was obviously an asset as both a section man, a soloist and even an arranger so he must have found work somewhere.

Charlie Johnson photo per 78recordsDOTwordpressDOTcom 2

Whitted could be counted on for a hot solo but seems to have calmed down for his next record date, on May 16, 1934 with Fats Waller and His Rhythm, perhaps to his detriment. This was the inaugural date for the small groups that Waller would lead through 1942. Centering around Waller’s piano, vocals and compositions while giving the rest of the band ample room to shine, they represent some of the loosest, most joyous jazz of the swing era. Too bad Whitted lasted for just this first session.

It remains unclear why Waller replaced Whitted with Gene Sedric, who would go on to play for nearly all of Waller’s “Rhythm” sessions. Jazz historian and critic Dan Morgenstern notes that Whitted was “a bit of problem” because “clearly he can’t improvise.” It is true that aside from the upper register break opening “Armful O’Sweetness,” Whitted rarely explodes out of the band:

Much of his playing on this session revolves around melodic paraphrase or doubling the melody under Waller’s vocals and sticking to the lower register. Whitted hesitates slightly on “I Wish I Were Twins” and his energy and invention are hardly up to that of Waller (how many players are, even today?), yet he never squeaks, fluffs a note or otherwise falters in maintaining the line:

Discographer Laurie Wright describes Whitted’s playing with Waller as “decidedly ‘under wraps’ compared with his buoyant playing with Charlie Johnson and Clarence Williams.” That is a kinder as well as fairer evaluation of Whitted. Whitted’s chalumeau may have been just the sound that Waller wanted to deliver the tunes, his lack of improvisatory fancy a matter of choice rather than compromise. Morgenstern praises “the variety of sounds at [Autrey’s] disposal,” so perhaps between Waller’s stride flourishes and Autrey’s timbral palette, the band simply needed a solid lead to hold things together. If that was Waller’s call, it’s hard to argue with it given Whitted’s smooth alto on “Armful” or his warm, woody clarinet on “A Porter’s Love Song”:

Had Waller kept Whitted on, or had Whitted decided to stay, the rest of Whitted’s story may have been very different. By the mid thirties Whitted was playing with trombonist Danny Logan’s big band, then backing revues and “sweet swing sockeroos” with his own big band by the late thirties (neither band ever recording its work).

Storyville magazine 12-01-1989 with photo of Ben Whitted in Danny Logan Orch mid 30s via Frank Driggs

The New York Age February 18, 1939

Whitted had already witnessed the ragtime craze, blues craze and dance craze, so he may have been looking to take advantage of the country’s swing craze, this time around as a bandleader. He was already considered a more senior musician by the time he recorded with Waller, so his decision to take on those responsibilities may have also reflected a willingness to challenge himself at a comparatively late stage in his career.

The New York Age July 31, 1943

By the time of his last recording session, this time with Noble Sissle’s big band on a 1943 Armed Forces Radio Service broadcast, Whitted had also witnessed drastic changes in the size, repertoire and public face of the big bands:

The New York Age September 5, 1942The Sissle transcriptions (starting at the top of the above clip and continuing at 16:40 and 26:30) are big, brassy, lush and especially Basie-like on “Boogie Woogie Special,” with little room for soloists and Whitted buried in a tight sax section. Jazz was no longer just the soundtrack for nightclubs but the popular music that servicemen wanted to enjoy abroad. The music has come a long way from the small groups and stomping tentets of the twenties. Whitted saw, heard and played through it all. He passed away on February 2, 1955, a few months short of his sixtieth birthday, without any interviews or memoirs documenting his experiences.

It’s fair to say that Whitted neither recorded enough nor lived a colorful enough life to inspire schools of influence or biographies. It’s harsher, not to mention far more limiting, to point out that he was no Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds or Frank Teschemacher. It’s probably best to listen to what Whitted played and give him the benefit of the doubt as a skilled, hardworking musician. To paraphrase Allen Lowe, Whitted was a foot soldier rather than a revolutionary, someone on the front lines of American music if not the forefront, getting the job done and claiming their own victories. Fortunately the highest bars are not the only ones worth knowing in history, and certainly not in music.

Storyville Index Vehemently Clarifying Whitted's name

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For No Other Reason…

…than it’s my blog and this recording is one of my favorites, here is McKinney’s Cotton Pickers on “I Found A New Baby“:

The arrangement goes straight into Spencer Williams‘s melody, sans introduction about a decade before Ellington’s “Cotton Tail,” showing off the sax section with the first alto slightly inflecting the theme while maintaining a solid lead. The brass vary things more but remain thoroughly idiomatic: punchy and metallic with no clarinet-like noodles.  Prince Robinson plays the tenor sax like it’s twice as big and cast in copper.  He works in tone and winking little licks rather than rapid-fire arpeggiation a la Coleman Hawkins or Bud Freeman’s greasy barroom innuendo.

This band and its chief arranger/director Don Redman, beloved as they are by collectors and historians, have been criticized for an occasionally over-arranged sound.  Trumpeter John Nesbitt’s chart is economical in form and visceral in delivery.  Remove the the sections filling out the harmonies and you can almost hear a two-man front line of alto and trumpet playing the head and then taking a paraphrase solo before saxophonist George Thomas’s vocal.

It all takes place in a little over three minutes.  While there won’t be any dissertations written about it, there seems to be a craft as well as a spirit to the notes themselves beyond nostalgia or factual inventory.  More definitely, I like it.

 

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The Ben Selvin Sound Versus The Sound Of Ben Selvin

When a friend mentioned Woody Backensto’s A Ben Selvin Discography, my asking whether the book discussed Selvin’s music might have made me sound like a smart-ass or one very obtuse person. Doesn’t Moby Dick talk about whales? A person watching JFK is bound to learn something about the presidency. So in what way could a list of this bandleader’s recordings not discuss his music?

Most discographies stick to dates, labels, matrix numbers, personnel listings and, in short, just the facts. Book-length ones like Backensto’s often include biographies yet focus on birthplaces, gigs, families, recording contracts, tours and other circumstances surrounding the actual notes. That always seemed odd to me. We only care about Ben Selvin because of the notes, don’t we?

So did this one analyze any of the recordings? Do the records illustrate some unique approach to popular music? Selvin claimed that he had made over nine thousand records by 1934, recording the same tune for multiple labels and choosing to use a different arrangement for each one. How did he choose or change an arrangement? Is there a Ben Selvin “sound” or just the sound of Ben Selvin?

Several records include solos, ranging from straight renditions of the melody to very individual paraphrases of it as well as jazz-inspired deconstructions. Who were Selvin’s soloists, how did he select them and what do they tell us about jazz in the pre-Armstrong era?

Selvin began recording around 1919 and witnessed incredible changes in American music; how did he adapt to changes in style throughout his long career? Isn’t there more to say about Selvin than what day of the week he first recorded “Dardanella” or the set list at an unrecorded hotel gig that will never be heard again?

Things made more sense when a friend politely reminded me about the specificity of a discography. These works adhere to external sources such as sidemen or record label files rather than the author’s ears. Their deliberate economy of scope and emphasis on historical details over musicological assertions serve a very specific purpose.

What can I say? I never looked at it that way and am lucky to have friends who are willing to share their knowledge.

CareOfNewswiseDotComI like my friends and also like knowledge that helps me to appreciate music, which is why these very specific documents are so important. It’s no surprise that many discographies are about the size and density of a brick since they serve a similar purpose. Discographies provide foundations and in some cases necessary limits to speculation: at a certain point it is helpful to know that it is not Bix Beiderbecke on a particular recording and be able to move onto the next one (or even discuss the non-Beiderbecke record on its own terms). We need the historical-discographical perspective to root our musical discussions, but the musical discussion itself is the whole reason we still care about people like Ben Selvin.

So, where is the discussion of Selvin’s music? Generations of dancers, listeners, nostalgics and collectors (admittedly dwindling with each new generation) have heard these sides, so who is capturing the musical insights beyond the material circumstances?

Here is where the answers aren’t as cut-and-dried. Given Selvin’s position as a commercial musician rather than a jazz artist, maybe his “music” was just a generic product from an ancient era of pop music, ready for the historical incinerator three and a half minutes after the phonograph needle touched the first pressing. Or maybe all music is transcendent to the point that it defies commentary. Both perspectives justify not actually talking about the notes, yet here I am wanting to know more about the notes.

I know I’m not being a smart-ass, so that leaves just one option.

Yet I am smart enough to thank JSL, a passionate and knowledgeable voice for early jazz and the most ardent Ben Selvin booster I have ever encountered, for introducing me to so much of Selvin’s music and sparking my curiosity.  To learn more about Selvin’s life, you can read the chapter on Selvin from Tim Gracyk’s book Popular American Recording Pioneers, 1895 -1925 here and also hear Selvin’s story straight from his mouth via this link on the Bixography website.

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