Listening for the California Ramblers

Musicianship and good management aligned to make the California Ramblers incredibly popular during the twenties. The New York-based dance band (without a single member from the golden state) became a mainstay of the college dance circuit thanks to their manager’s connections. Using that same pull, along with a knack for crafting group aliases, the Ramblers became a ubiquitous presence at multiple record studios.

The Ramblers’ driving rhythm, always slightly ahead of the beat, as well as their tight playing and unrelenting energy kept their clientele dancing in ballrooms and living rooms across the country. Yet nearly a century later their music is more often described as “peppy” (happens to rhyme with “preppy”), denoting a mix of enthusiasm and naiveté, a sense of “boy, these kids sure did try.”

As musician and historian Richard M. Sudhalter pointed out, the Rambler’s reliance on stock arrangements was an obstacle to their forging an individual identity in the long run. Their often clipped phrasing and jerky syncopation is far removed from the loose, vocally inflected jazz that would sweep the world (yet no less removed from that standard than most of the Ramblers’ contemporaries).

Groupies

What the Ramblers accomplished with those stocks and their sound is what really matters.  Each of the hundreds of sides by the California Ramblers (a.k.a. The Little Ramblers on Columbia, a.k.a. The Goofus Five on Okeh, a.k.a. The Varsity Eight on Cameo, a.k.a. The Golden Gate Orchestra on Edison, etc.) inevitably feature creative, exciting touches and a clear commitment to improvised music.  The stocks were often adapted to include plenty of driving breaks and solos from bass saxophonist and straw boss Adrian Rollini, trumpeters Roy Johnston and Bill Moore and reedmen Bobby Davis and Pete Pumiglio, as well as guest stars from the New York scene such as Red Nichols, Miff Mole and the Dorsey brothers along with many others.

Most of the time Rollini’s cool growl boots the ensemble underneath, but Tommy Felline’s banjo becomes a force of nature on the hottest sides. Even without any doctoring of the charts, sometimes there’s just the sound of the brass playing with extra bite or ferocious drive, or the saxes’ nasal, ironic blend betraying something other than guys reading a part.

The Ramblers were above all a dance band, and were often playing for dancers rather than listeners. The type of rapt attention usually reserved for “serious” music can become an act of labor rather than listening when approaching the Ramblers’ discography. Instead of sifting through upbeat but otherwise generic ensembles and occasionally insipid vocals in a game of “find the jazz,” it’s best to listen to the Ramblers as their contemporaries did, neither as background or as centerpiece, and let Chelsea Quealey‘s trumpet or a simply infectious ensemble chorus make itself known.

There are hundreds of YouTube videos of the group(s) available…

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2 thoughts on “Listening for the California Ramblers

  1. tronepone says:

    Another insightful essay, which helps explain the gulf between the group’s popularity at the time and its asterisk status today.
    Dancers may have been inspired by that “driving rhythm, always slightly ahead of the beat,” but it can really wear when listening to several records in a row. And it’s even harder to enjoy when bumping beneath Kirkeby’s vocals, which had to roll eyes even at the time.
    Rollini is irrepressible, but many of the others (Moore, Pumiglio) sound at their best in other settings. A later edition of the group evolved into the even more ignored Bert Lown band, with a smoother beat, more variety in the material, better arrangements, and singers like Smith Ballew replacing Ed Kirkeby.

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