It’s no surprise that so many musicians, scholars, critics and right-thinking folks often cite Duke Ellington’s statement that “[t]here are two kinds of music: good music, and the other kind.” It’s a typically Duke-ish statement: thought provoking, stylish, and utterly world-altering (not unlike his musical statements).
The idea of label-free art, of acknowledging the infinite range of taste and letting artists show what categories merely tell, is inspiring. Unfortunately the burden of genius is that the world can’t always keep up with it. (We) laymen in the larger music consuming public rely upon labels. “Rolling Stone,” The Source,” “Gramophone” and “Country Weekly” are printing strong, their musical pigeonholing aside. For music that might not fit their stylistic portfolios (or was recorded more than a week ago), Ellington’s meta-categories just don’t work.
Ellington’s words seemed ironic while listening to Jazz Oracle‘s reissue of Adrian Rollini’s work as a sideman and leader. The bass saxophonist, vibraphonist, couesnophonist, hot fountain pen player and musical wunderkind (who also possessed perfect pitch and performed his first recital at age four) is joined by several other jazz luminaries, including clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey, Rollini’s tenor sax tooting little brother Arthur, violinist Joe Venuti, trombonist Tommy Dorsey and several others.
The musicians take turns sanctifying a string of Tin Pan Alley throwaways for the bulk of this reissue. Recorded throughout the Depression, these sides were intended to meet market appeal rather than satiate artistic desires. There are some purely improvised jazz instrumentals, such as the incisive stream of solos on “Black Horse” from George Posnack’s orchestra (all the more intriguing as the entire rest of the personnel aside from Rollini is unidentified!). Dorsey’s trombone wails over Rollini’s menacingly descending bass lines on “Blue Prelude”, and the whole band coalesces into a jumping furor on “Charlie’s Home” and “Happy As The Day Is Long.” Yet on most sides, jazz (to paraphrase another talented musician) is an ingredient rather than the entree.
These recordings are far more spirited and creative than most “pop” of their time, and there’s enough pure listening value to elevate them beyond just “dance music,” but they don’t sound like much “jazz” contemporary listeners are accustomed to hearing. They’re not likely to get reviewed in “JazzTimes” or “Downbeat,” and outside of specialist collectors, the larger jazz audience just won’t hear about them.
Yet given the experience of Rollini’s bass sax flowing out the closing stop chords of “Mississippi Basin” (like Charlie Parker’s alto on steroids), or Pee Wee Russell’s taunting clarinet on “I’ve Gotta’ Get Up and Go To Work,” those listeners are missing out by not even hearing about such things.
While the Rollini led sessions have enough improvisation and swing to earn some jazz street cred, the more commercial but nonetheless creative sides are stuck in historical limbo. Barring the appearance of “Good Music Monthly” at the newsstand, it’s uncertain how new listeners might stumble upon the arrangements of the Tom Clines orchestra, with their imaginative textures for violin and reeds, or the smooth, tight vocal trio on “You’ll Recognize My Baby.” Fulton McGrath’s two-fisted piano harmonies with Rollini’s band blur the lines between jazz, pop and classical, but they remain worth hearing even if we’re not sure how to label them.
Unless “Billboard” introduces a section on historical pop, jazz will have to remain enough of a “big tent” (still another great musician’s phrase) to fit these and other sounds that might otherwise get swept under the rug of history. Ellington’s uncategories should be bursting at the seams with examples, even if we don’t know where to file them in iTunes.