Red Nichols: The Grand-Uncle of Cool

Cool jazz is usually assumed to have been a reaction to bebop that first appeared in the late forties, with opponents popping up soon after.  It’s no secret that Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer were experimenting with “cooler” sounds in the twenties.  Yet the lineage of the cool, as well as its its haters, is just as strong in the music of Ernest Loring “Red” Nichols.  Both Red’s jazz and cool jazz share a sense of exploration and reflection, along with critics who were unable to listen past their own fiery, immediate preconceptions.

For Nichols’ kindest adversaries, he was merely a Bix Beiderbecke imitator, while words like “cold” and “mechanical” have logged a lot of mileage courtesy of his other detractors.  Such attacks may or may not have to do with the unromantic truth that Nichols was a disciplined, shrewd player and businessman who was able to pay his bills.  Geographically, chronologically and musically, he was also his own musician, .  During a period when “jazz” meant earthy and “hot,” Nichols had the imagination and gall to work with lighter textures, nuanced arrangements and subdued, cerebral energy.  A lucrative studio career has resulted in a nearly insurmountable discography, but  Nichols’ take on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Washboard Blues” best illustrates his singular cornet and style:

Nichols’ way with a front line speaks volumes from the start.  Instead of the three-way polyphony heard in hundreds of combos at the time, cornet and clarinet lay down a bone-dry lead  (similar to the brass and reed front lines of most post-war groups).  The attention to detail for just two horns is also revealing, first answering Eddie Lang‘s guitar in unison for the introduction, then switching to tight, coy harmony for the melody, with Vic Berton‘s timpani offering its own abstract commentary.  When collective improvisation does materialize, it’s with the same balance and intimacy heard earlier.  Even the timbres are telling: Nichols’ clean, lithe, slightly clipped cornet, Jimmy Dorsey whistling polished, cutting phrases on clarinet.

The false fingerings and ghosted notes of Nichols’ solo illustrate why “clever” doesn’t have to be an epithet.  Dorsey’s arpeggios and phrase entrances come across as more acrobatic but equally measured.  Pianist Arthur “The Baron” Schutt shows off his classical studies with busy, two-fisted rubato, while Lang’s strings resemble a steely, pensive harpsichord.  The players cherry-pick their notes as though in the midst of some detailed internal calculus, insistently (and for that time, bravely) refusing to throw everything in until they know what’s possible.  Many critics hear careful reserve.  Other listeners just notice technique, curiosity and patience.

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10 thoughts on “Red Nichols: The Grand-Uncle of Cool

  1. jazzlives says:

    Art comes in more than one flavor! It fascinates me how the “critics” and the “listeners” fasten on one artist and decide that (S)HE is the ONE and everyone else is a base pretender. So Bix is God and Nichols is nothing but a businessman. Alas. Nichols, like Goodman, had the bad taste to make money and live a long life, playing to large audiences. How naughty of him! But if we can — as you are teaching us to do — listen without preconceptions, how much more there is to reward us!

    • M. Figg says:

      It makes you wonder what people would write about if musical employment were as lucrative and steady as other professions; they might just have to stick to the sounds!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Andrew Kirk says:

    Andy Kirk,What is instantly apparent in listening to Red Nichols’ recordings from the late Twenties is that the sound and balance acheived demonstrate Red’s considerable studio experience and careful preparation for each side recorded.Practically all recorded jazz at that time was rehearsed and arrangements often written down so Red’s sessions were not unusual .And whilst I have always loved Bix’s playing,I think it is possible that he was jealous of the qualities of Red’s recordings and of his superior technique.After fifty years of listening to Red and co.particularly the years 27 to 29 when Fud Livingstone was the principal arranger for the studio bands,I never tire of them

    • M. Figg says:

      That’s a great point about the role that Nichols’ experience as a working studio musician played in these recordings, Andy. And I haven’t been listening to them as long as you, but so far I’m nowhere near tired of these sides.

      Thanks for reading and for sharing your insights!

  3. AussieSwaggie says:

    Well folks it’s a sunny spring day down here in the Antipodes and I’ve just randomly dug out my copy of ‘Red Nichols and his Five Pennies Volume Three 1928′ on Swaggie with notes by Steve Hester. It’s the first time I’ve heard it on a good sound system and I’m enjoying it very much. Like the previous poster said the tracks with Fud Livingston are great. Fud gets a more than passing mention in Sudhalter’s ‘Lost Chords’.

    Anyway it’s good to know there are others out there who can appreciate the same stuff as me. There ain’t too many around this neck of the woods.

    Cheers Folks.

    • Stephen Hester and his father, the late Stan Hester, are such authorities on Nichols. I actually just found a copy of the Joe Tarto LP for which Stephen wrote the notes.

      Thanks so much for reading!

  4. Brad Kay says:

    The music of Nichols and company between ’25 and ’28 have always been a watershed of modernism. I’ve collected 78s since the late ’60s, and these records always knocked me out. Comparisons to Bix only cloud the issue. On Bix’s records, we listen mostly for him alone. He stands apart from his colleagues. The Nichols-Mole-Dorsey-Lang-Schutt-Berton-Livingston combine was close-knit conscious entity, with an entirely new collective aesthetic. Anyone with a brain listens to it in toto, not just for Nichols’ solos.

    When Red Nichols and Miff Mole broke up their partnership in 1929, that collective evaporated, and Red lost his artistic grace.

    • Thanks for pointing to the collective aspect of Nichols’ music, which is so important to its context (and also provides an interesting comparison with the collective aspect of the New Orleans model so often associated with this period).

      • jazzlives says:

        Nice refusal to engage with people who write “Anyone with a brain” — another aging dude spoiling for a fight.

        On Sun, Jan 19, 2014 at 9:01 AM, The Pop of Yestercentury wrote:

        > Andrew J. Sammut commented: “Thanks for pointing to the collective > aspect of Nichols’ music, which is so important to its context (and also > provides an interesting comparison with the collective aspect of the New > Orleans model so often associated with this period).” >

  5. Thanks to Albert Haim for sharing this article, and more importantly offering further insights into the music on his Bixography website:

    http://www.network54.com/Forum/27140/message/1389742629/Red%20Nichols-%20The%20Grand-Uncle%20of%20Cool%20is%20the%20title%20of%20….

    Dr. Haim runs this website with a meticulous attention to detail as well as great love for his subject.

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