The music business is difficult, but music history can be murder. Just ask any of a hundred composers laying dead and buried under the immortality of Bach, Mozart and other innovators. In case they’re not around, give Cab Calloway a read:
You hear about the Duke Ellingtons, the Jimmie Luncefords, and the Fletcher Hendersons, but people sometimes forget that jazz was not only built in the minds of the great ones, but on the backs of the ordinary ones.
Sour grapes? Perhaps, but the fact remains that history books don’t pay as much attention to the artists who did what they did well without breaking barriers or spawning a school of influence. Unfortunately Calloway‘s energetic singing and swinging bands were “merely” exciting music that was played incredibly, but which didn’t build the foundations of big band jazz like Henderson, reinvent jazz orchestration along the lines of Ellington or even define an iconic rhythm a la Lunceford.
Yet even Calloway has enjoyed a modest degree of historical attention compared to many of his other Swing Era colleagues. If Calloway’s back and Ellington’s mind helped build the house of jazz, they did so with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band’s legs running to all the gigs they couldn’t make.
Managed by impresario Irving Mills, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band was a New York based outfit designed as a third tier cash cow underneath Mills’ other two clients, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. The Blue Rhythm Band would cover Ellington/Calloway fare such as “Minnie the Moocher” and “Black and Tan Fantasy” along with their own swinging originals, without ever being allowed to compete with Mills’ star operations. What short shrift the MBRB does receive in jazz history texts frequently reiterates that given a revolving door of musicians fronting the band, and absent a distinct book, the band was never able to establish a singular identity or distinguish itself from other swing groups.
The group’s discography reveals a variety of big band sonorities, roof-raising soloists (many drawn from the star-studded ranks of Fletcher Henderson’s band after it folded) and the type of innately danceable rhythm that defined “swing” as a musical adjective, verb and noun during the thirties.
“Harlem Heat” pulls all of these elements together. The cut opens with Edgar Hayes’ crystalline piano wrapping around a trio of baritone, tenor and bass saxes, followed by JC Higginbotham punching into his trombone’s upper register and Buster Bailey’s deliciously tinny clarinet acrobatics. Between it all there’s an assortment of simple, infectious riffs:
“Dancing Dogs” intersperses the brass barking thoroughly modernistic chords between Gene Mikell’s soprano sax, Red Allen‘s vicious trumpet growls, Joe Garland (of “In the Mood” infamy) on husky tenor, Buster Bailey’s reed seesaws and and more great piano from Edgar Hayes. Five soloists, a world of contrasts and less than three minutes in hot music heaven [just follow the arrow to listen]:
Here’s the band under Baron Lee’s banner and vocals, in a stoner-iffic number made popular by Calloway. Potential identity crises aside, they sound like they’re having a ball. Their snappy rhythm and Harry White’s snarling trombone more than compensate for some comedic misfires:
The rhythm is a little chunky but not stiff, and it rides forward, never up and down. Pianist Hayes, along with bassist (and future Ellington alumnus) Hayes Alvis and drummer O’Neil Spencer aren’t doing anything groundbreaking as a rhythm section, just laying down an addictively steady beat in solid four. There’s none of the percussive color of Sonny Greer, the dynamic technique of Jimmy Blanton or the world-altering glide of the Basie rhythm section. Like Al Morgan and Leroy Maxey, Cab Calloway’s bass and drum team, the MRBB’s rhythm section provided an assembly line of groove: steady, reliable, and easy to take for granted. Calloway’s back may have been sore by the end of his career, but the Mills Blue Rhythm Band needed corrective surgery.
Irving Mills has been discussed, debated and demonized, but there’s no denying he had an impressive portfolio of talent under his wing. Here’s some footage of Irving promoting all three of the bands mentioned above, with period marketing rhetoric and an accent not unlike a few of my uncles: