Tag Archives: Benny Goodman

A (The?) Larry Binyon Story

The following post first appeared in multiple parts on this blog, and I was asked to consolidate it into one single entry (and more than happy to oblige). Larry Binyon has been a personal favorite since I first started listening to jazz. Hopefully this post will shed some light on his life and work, and perhaps inspire someone with better resources to research that life, and more importantly Binyon’s music, further. Either way, please enjoy!

Larry BinyonReality television notwithstanding, ubiquity and fame are two very different accomplishments. Just ask Larry Binyon. More practically, Google him: he appears on dozens of record dates (150 jazz sessions alone according to Tom Lord), usually listed alongside some legendary names. Yet that’s all most historians and musicologist have to say about him. Larry Binyon is all over jazz history but not a well-known part of it.

He must have been an impressive musician to get work so consistently, especially with the likes of Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, Red Nichols, the Boswell Sisters, the Dorsey Brothers and other famous names. He also doubled several instruments, mostly playing tenor saxophone but contributing on flute when it was rarely heard in a jazz context. Binyon could also improvise in addition to read and double. Given the company he kept, he got to read and double far more often than he got to take a solo.

Years later and with very few solos on record, sidemen like Binyon can seem like historical packaging material. They surround the names we know best, provide musical as well as personnel background but otherwise end up padding the “real” artistic goods. After all, isn’t jazz “really” about improvisation? Weren’t there “better” improvisers around? Didn’t other musicians double? Couldn’t “anyone” have read the chart, as Binyon did?

Perhaps, but only from the luxury of listening decades later. To musicians, someone who could do all three (and maybe even show up on time and in uniform) would be a precious resource. There must have been a reason why Larry Binyon got to play so often. He also recorded quite a bit, even some of those improvised solos that jazz purists like to hunt down between all the written stuff, which Binyon also made possible. That sounds like far more than filler, and it definitely sounds like an important part of the music.

Chicago And Back Again: The Early Years

Lawrence “Larry” Fiffe Binyon was born in Illinois on September 16, 1908, the younger of Claude and Josephine Armstrong Binyon’s two children (their first child Hugh was born in 1905). Census records show the Binyon family renting one unit of a two-family home in Chicago’s twenty-seventh ward in 1910, with Claude Binyon listed as an unemployed funeral director and somehow still employing a live-in servant. By 1920 the family was renting a single home in the city of Urbana, about 150 miles south of Chicago. Claude now worked as a secretary for an oil company. Josephine was now also employed as a music teacher working out of the Binyon home, now servant-less.

Urbana was a much less densely populated city, and census records show more white-collar jobs among the Binyons’ neighbors in Urbana than those in Chicago. Perhaps quality of life was a factor in their move. Maybe Urbana was simply where Claude could find another steady paycheck, albeit now supplemented with a second income. If there was financial hardship, it could have influenced Larry’s understanding of the value of a dollar. Claude’s death in 1924, when Larry was just sixteen years old, certainly would have put a financial strain on the family. Larry might have developed his later well-documented work ethic at an early age.

It’s unclear how early Larry Binyon started playing music, but safe to assume that his mother shared at least some of her musical knowledge. By age eighteen, Binyon was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, listed on E flat (soprano) flute in the school’s concert band as well as (standard) flute and piccolo in its first regimental band during the 1926-27 school year.

Binyon would only spend one year at college. By 1927 he was already playing professionally in Chicago as part of Beasley Smith’s band, which also included drummer Ray McKinley and clarinetist Matty Matlock. Drummer and future swing era star Gene Krupa was playing across the street from Beasley in Joe Kayser’s band, and Binyon would have encountered an even wider pool of talent in the jazz mecca. Flute may have been Binyon’s first instrument, or at least his primary one at school, but tenor sax would have by now become his main horn for dance bands.

Later on that year drummer, bandleader and talent incubator Ben Pollack came back to Chicago after an unsuccessful gig at the Venice Ballroom in California. His third saxophonist and arranger Fud Livingston had left the band earlier that year (to work with conductor Nat Shilkret in New York City). It’s unclear exactly when or how Binyon hooked up with Pollack, but he was with the Pollack band on December 12, 1927 when it returned to the Victor’s Chicago studio after a five-month hiatus. He even got to solo!

On the final bridge of “Waitin’ For Katie,” Binyon stays pretty close to the melody on the first take and loosens up slightly for the second one. Both takes find Binyon jumping in on a break and ripping into the upper register (here is the issued first take):

Like many jazz musicians from this period, Binyon “routines” his solo but still has something unique to offer. His reedy tone and declaratory, trumpet-like phrasing are very different from Coleman Hawkins’s metal and rapid-fire arpeggios. Binyon has been compared to Bud Freeman, but Freeman generally played in a more agitated style at this time. Binyon sounds more relaxed even at faster tempos. Stated bluntly, he just played fewer notes than those guys.

Apparently Pollack liked Binyon’s notes; his tenor saxophone gets another solo on the session’s other issued side, “Memphis Blues,” where Binyon once again varies things just slightly between two takes (the issued first take follows):

He sounds tentative playing counterpoint in the introduction, and his brief solo might not seem like a model of construction. Yet he doesn’t get much room to stretch out on the W.C. Handy standard. Fud Livingston’s arrangement inserts some snappy chord substitutions from the band into the middle of Binyon’s chorus, which Binyon leaps into with a beautiful, well-executed lick. His preceding improvisation/routine is closer to an earlier, pre-Armstrong tradition that emphasized variety over contiguity. It’s also the work of a nineteen-year old cutting his first record. Better things were still to come but this was an admirable start.

Pollack’s band was filled with young talent, including eighteen-year old Benny Goodman and twenty-year old Jimmy McPartland. They usually got more solos, and have certainly received more ink since this session, but Binyon got to play alongside them and make the Pollack band possible. He must have been doing something worth talking about.

pollackband1929careofredhotjazzdotcom

Making It Work: The Pollack Years

Much to Ben Pollack’s short-term benefit, his band and Larry Binyon parted ways following their December 7, 1927 recording session. Variety’s issue of January 25, 1928 reported that the band had already started a residency at the Club Bagdad in Chicago’s Pershing Hotel. By February 25 it had closed at the Bagdad and was onto New York City. Binyon might have played with the Pollack band during its remaining time in Chicago, but apparently Pollack had another saxophonist in mind for its next move.

Bud Freeman explains that Pollack first heard him play at a late-night jam session in Chicago, and was so impressed by the saxophonist’s solos with McKenzie and Condon’s Chicagoans that he asked Freeman join the Pollack band in New York. These now-famous recordings are widely considered the birth of the “Chicago style.” Yet it’s hard to believe their loose format was a decisive factor in Pollack’s decision. Pollack was running a jazz-infused dance orchestra, not a jam-oriented jazz band. He needed musicians with the ability and discipline to read written arrangement as well as improvise solos. Freeman never hid his distaste for dance band work and didn’t like New York. Pollack fired Freeman after three months for clowning around on the bandstand and then rehired him for an Atlantic City engagement in July, only to have Freeman quit at the end of the month.

Pollack Reed Section c. 1927: Benny Goodman, Fud Livingston and Gil Rodin

Pollack Reed Section c. 1927: Benny Goodman, Fud Livingston and Gil Rodin

After some traveling gigs and a brief dry spell, the Pollack band began a long-term engagement at the prestigious Park Central Hotel on September 28. Pollack already had Jimmy McPartland, Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden (who had joined in June) to contribute hot solos. By this point he was probably willing to sacrifice some improvisational fire for a third saxophonist who could, and would, do the job. That included doubling the numerous other reed instruments that Pollack, apparently inspired by bands such as Roger Wolfe Kahn’s, wanted to show off.

Binyon probably continued to work with Beasley Smith’s band or one of several bands in Chicago while Pollack was in New York. It’s uncertain when Binyon got to New York, whether Pollack sent for him or if he just happened to be one of the many musicians starting to move to the musical epicenter, but by October 1, 1928 Binyon was back on record with the Pollack band in New York.

With three powerful soloists and the band’s tendency to rely on written arrangements, Binyon didn’t get many solos on record with Pollack. With Benny Goodman frequently doubling alto and baritone saxes, he wasn’t even the only saxophone soloist. Pollack instead capitalized on Binyon’s strength as an ensemble player.

A lush waltz like “Forever” or the muted trumpets, violins and (most likely Binyon’s) flute on “Let’s Sit And Talk About You” might not interest jazz listeners but the records work on strictly musical terms. Attention to dynamics, ensemble balance and lyricism are fairly consistent through even the Pollack’s band’s most commercial dates. Its sax section of Binyon, Goodman and lead alto Gil Rodin play with a bright, creamy blend, for example answering the full band on the Victor recording of “Futuristic Rhythm”:

or “From Now On,” on which they achieve an especially transparent sound, right down to Binyon’s purring tenor:

Talented musicians, a steady gig at a famous venue and sheer hustle helped the Pollack band grow incredibly popular, allowing them to move onto radio work, Broadway, various touring appearances and a few short films. The band is featured exclusively on a Vitaphone film shot on July 29, 1929. Binyon is seen in the middle of the sax section, soprano sax, clarinet and flute impressively displayed in front of him while he plays tenor throughout:

Pollack obviously liked Binyon; he appears on every title cut under Pollack’s name (save for one small group session by “Ben’s Bad Boys” in January 1929). Yet a dependable player from a well-known band who could read, double and improvise was bound to get additional offers. Based on his discography, Larry Binyon was more than happy to work on the side.

A Sideman Soloing On The Side

Larry Binyon was talented (and fortunate enough) to have joined the Ben Pollack band just in time for its peak of popularity. He appeared on nearly every title cut under Pollack’s name, but side dates with studio pickup groups let the tenor saxophonist stretch out as more than a section player. He gets to join in with Pollack’s favored soloists on “Whoopee Stomp” under Irving Mills’s leadership, kicking off a string of solos featuring Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden and Jimmy McPartland:

It’s tempting to compare Binyon with these now-marquee names in terms of relaxed phrasing, catchy licks and bluesy inflection, but Binyon’s style works on different priorities. It doesn’t display the same technical confidence but remains driving and tense. Binyon rarely stays in one place, wriggling up and down phrases, emphasizing variety over linear continuity. Binyon played hot solos: no frills, high on energy and contrast yet very personal. Binyon pushes the beat but without the agitation and gritty tone of fellow tenor player Bud Freeman or his cohorts Eddie Miller and Babe Russin. Binyon’s approach is also far removed from the dense arpeggios and metallic tone of the Coleman Hawkins school.

Binyon’s tone, husky, reedy and very distinct, could be an asset unto itself. On “Wont’cha” with Pollack, Binyon gets a paraphrase (one of his few solos of any kind with Pollack) after the vocal that shows off his warm, centered sound:

It’s not an improvised solo but it is an effective orchestral voice, probably appreciated in a dance band setting. Twenties bandleaders would occasionally use a light-toned baritone sax in a melodic role, but it sounds like Binyon’s tenor providing the broad, cello-like lead on the transition to the last chorus of “A Japanese Dream” with Mills:

“Blue Little You” includes a similar voicing on its introduction and right after the vocal. Contrasted with the standard alto lead that immediately follows, it makes an especially colorful effect on what might otherwise be dismissed as a straight dance chart:

Binyon also tosses out an improvised bridge before the ensemble conclusion. His jagged lines come across as flip commentary on the vocalist’s elongated, slightly nasal delivery. Brief solo spots like this one allow Binyon a concentrated burst to say just enough in a few measures. He snaps into the final bridge of “Little Rose Covered Shack,” once again on McPartland’s heels, this time with snaking, clarinet-like lines along with his usual rich tone and tendency to begin phrases in the upper register:

He really cuts loose on one of the few mixed dates of the Jazz Age, a freewheeling session with no less than Fats Waller. With Waller as well as Teagarden, Red Allen, Albert Nicholas, Eddie Condon and Gene Krupa on hand, it’s no surprise that Binyon sounds like he’s having fun. He wails and moans (showing he also listened to Hawkins) through both the introduction and one chorus of “Ridin’ But Walkin’”:

On “Won’t You Get Off It Please?” Binyon sticks to declaratory, at times trumpet-like exclamations, popping out high notes and plunging into the lower register for the release:

Binyon also seems to enjoy himself on “Shirt Tail Stomp,” one of the novelty tunes that “the Pollack band without Pollack” recorded to satisfy popular demand. His big tone stays intact through all of the mooing and whinnying:

Benny Goodman “created” this number after a recording engineer overheard his band mocking a cornball jazz act. Binyon has the perhaps dubious honor of appearing on three of its five versions on record. In addition to reading, doubling and improvising, apparently he was also a capable musical clown.

careofsaxophonedotorgBinyon could obviously fit into a variety of musical settings, from Pollack’s snappy dance band setting to looser blowing sessions and everything between; trumpeter and band organizer Red Nichols had even started hiring him on orchestral pop dates modeled after Paul Whiteman (though mostly doubling oboe and flute as well as tenor sax, with Babe Russin handling solos). He was nothing if not versatile, and a versatile musician was usually a busy one.

By the summer of 1929, Goodman and McPartland had left the Pollack band. They were more than capably replaced by Charlie Teagarden and Matty Matlock. Jack Teagarden would stay on for another three years. Yet Binyon may have seen Goodman and McPartland’s departure as a sign that the Pollack band had peaked. He might have been smarting under the same conditions that drove them out of the band; Pollack had fired two of his top soloists for showing up to work with scuffed shoes! A good reputation as a multitalented player in New York would have enabled Binyon to forego the life of a touring musician. It also would have provided more opportunities to perform in different settings.

Something convinced Binyon to leave his first regular employer and a still widely respected band. Binyon’s last session with Pollack was in January 1930. As usual, he didn’t get any solos. One of the two tunes recorded at that session, “I’m Following You” featured yet another one of the leader’s comically earnest vocals. Larry Binyon might have simply been ready for something different.

 

A Heavy Gig Bag And Phonebook: The Thirties

U.S. Census records state that in April 1930, Larry Binyon was renting a room in his hometown of Urbana, Illinois. Jazz discography shows that by this time, said “saxophonist” working in the industry of “orchestra” (a federal category, or Binyon’s own prestigious description?) was firmly settled in New York City.

Red Nichols Photo care of Stephen Hester

Red Nichols (care of Stephen Hester)

Binyon had stopped recording with popular bandleader Ben Pollack by mid January 1930, but his big sound is clearly audible in the sax section of Sam Lanin’s band on several dates from March through May of that year. A careless census taker may have counted Binyon while he was in town for his mother’s wedding to her second husband. It’s also possible that the twenty-two year old sideman simply neglected to change his address. He was certainly busy enough: his post-Pollack resume reads like a directory of the most popular names in jazz and popular music of the time. He was also working alongside the cream of New York’s musical crop. With Lanin alone, Binyon got to record with Tommy Dorsey, Miff Mole, Manny Klein, Leo McConville and Al Duffy.

He was also part of the veritable all-star band that Red Nichols assembled for the Broadway musical “Girl Crazy.” Binyon had already worked with the trumpeter and booker on a few sessions, including large, symphonic jazz sessions where he doubled flute, oboe and clarinet. Composer George Gershwin wanted a jazz band for “Girl Crazy.” Nichols assembled Pollack alumni Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Charlie and Jack Teagarden as well as drummer Gene Krupa among others. Binyon isn’t usually mentioned as being part of the group, but neither are several other players needed to fill out the band. Binyon’s familiarity with the other players as well as his ability to read and double would have made him a welcome addition to this (or any other) pit.

“Girl Crazy” opened on October 14, 1930. Nine days later Nichols recorded two tunes from the show with several members of the band, including Binyon. Binyon doesn’t get to solo on “I Got Rhythm,” and “Embraceable You” doesn’t leave much room to distinguish any of the musicians. It’s unclear whether Binyon would have preferred more solo opportunities, but he must have been more than used to an ensemble role by this point.

Binyon continued recording with Nichols and Lanin as well as Benny Goodman on some of the clarinetist and future swing powerhouse’s earliest sessions leading a big band in 1931. Goodman assigns Binyon straight, almost dutiful melodic statements on both “I Don’t Know Why” and “Slow But Sure.” He also gets a flowery flute lead on “What Am I Gonna’ Do For Lovin’?” switching to tenor sax as well as a darker tone and more swinging approach for a duet with Goodman on the last chorus:

Given Goodman’s disagreements with Pollack while in his band, it may seem ironic that both bandleaders took a similar approach to Binyon’s role. Yet by the time Goodman began leading bands, that role may not have necessarily reflected Binyon’s abilities as a soloist. Solo space on jazz and dance records grew increasingly limited during the early thirties. Depression-era listeners preferred more sedate pop arrangements to driving hot jazz numbers. Even with the most exciting soloists on hand (Goodman’s 1931 bands included the likes of Bunny Berigan and Eddie Lang), many studio dates from this period stay fairly tame. Binyon may have had a varied toolkit, but his bosses may have needed one specific device.

The joy in listening to a sideman like Binyon is not just listening for when he pops up but what he gets to do. When a band did get to cut loose, for example Roger Wolfe Kahn’s orchestra performing “Shine On Your Shoes,” Binyon could throw down a hot solo on tenor sax:

or use his brawny sound to heat up even straight melodies like “Sweet And Hot” with Nichols:

Binyon’s flute could add the requisite touch of sweetness and refinement as needed. It could also bring an unusual color to up-tempo numbers like “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” with the Charleston Chasers:

The combination of the Binyon’ flute with ensemble syncopations and Krupa’s drums points to more than just a sweet context. Musicologist and historian Gunther Schuller mentions Binyon’s flute as well as Glenn Miller’s arrangement as examples of a sound “well beyond the normal dividing lines between commercial dance music and late twenties jazz.”

Along with Albert Socarras (who had soloed on flute as early as 1929 on “Have You Ever Felt That Way?” with Clarence Williams) and Wayman Carver, Binyon was one of the first to bring the flute into a jazz context. His smoky introduction to the Boswell Sisters’ “Sentimental Gentleman From Georgia” must have made musicians and bandleaders reconsider the possibilities of this instrument in a jazz setting:

In addition to the Boswells, Binyon accompanied vocalists Grace Johnston, Phil Danenberg, Dick Robertson, Chick Bullock, Mildred Bailey and Ethel Waters during the early thirties. He was usually backing these singers alongside member of the same circle of top-notch New York musician that he would have known very well by this point. He impressed Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey enough to land work with their band. At this point the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra was a smaller studio band, allowing Binyon room to solo on instrumentals such as “Mood Hollywood”:

and “Old Man Harlem”:

It’s unclear exactly what type of work Binyon landed outside of the studios during the early thirties. Arranger Don Walker recalls Binyon playing in the band for Hit Parade of 1933 as well as “first (legitimate) flute” in the 1935 musical Maywine. Walker and his copyist Romo Falk excitedly noted Binyon’s presence (expressing similar accolades for Binyon’s section mate, Artie Shaw).

Binyon played with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra for one month in 1936 before moving onto radio work, including jobs under Red Nichols’ direction, as well as other work outside of an expressly jazz context. It was around this time that Binyon also married his first wife, Polly. Seven years younger than Larry, she was born in Puerto Rico and living in Syracuse by 1935, before marrying Larry some time before 1940. The steadier work and more regular hours of radio may have eased his transition to married life, or vice-versa. Binyon even had time for a trip to Bermuda (though it is unclear whether it was for work, honeymoon or one last bachelor outing).

Binyon also did sax section work on jazz dates with Frank Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Bob Zurke and Dick McDonough during the mid to late thirties. McDonough was an experienced, well-connected guitarist who had his pick of sidemen for the few sessions he ever directed during 1936 and 1937. Binyon was on hand for two of McDonough’s dates, getting in some paraphrases as well as a quick-fingered, slightly more modern solo on “He Ain’t Got Rhythm”:

At this stage Binyon had the reputation as well as the chops to work in a variety of settings alongside some of the best players in New York. He even found the time to change his address: by 1940, one Larry Binyon, now a “musician” in the “orchestra” industry, was officially living in New York City.

1940 US Census per AncestryDotCom

Talent, Opportunity And Choice: Final Years and Legacy

The All Music Guide states that Larry Binyon “needed someone to hold the door open for him when he arrived at a recording studio or radio broadcast date.” It’s an unsubstantiated anecdote but an accurate image. By the early thirties Binyon was, in violinist Harry Hoffman’s words, one of New York’s “first-call” studio musicians who could “play anything.” With his move to fulltime radio work in 1936, Binyon would have been playing his tenor sax, flute and oboe, probably clarinet (and possibly the “few fiddle credits” mentioned by AMG writer Eugene Chadbourne) in any number of musical settings.

From The Big Band Almanac by Leo Walker

While trombonist Larry Alpeter adds, “most of these [first-call] guys had fine jazz skills,” Binyon’s appearances on jazz records and already sparse solo spots dried up by the mid forties. He is one of two tenors on Billie Holiday’s 1944 Decca sessions with Toots Camarata’s orchestra, but it’s unclear whether Binyon or Paul Ricci handle the few brief solos on these recordings. Binyon is strictly an ensemble player on his final jazz session, with Jess Stacy’s big band in June 1945.

After close to twenty years of having his hands literally and figuratively full in New York City, Binyon moved to Los Angeles in 1946. Binyon worked once again with Nichols in California, this time in Bobby Dolan’s orchestra on The Ford Show (starring Dinah Shore) from September 18, 1946 through June 11, 1947. Yet Binyon had also relocated to work as a recording contractor for the American Federation of Musicians.

If Binyon was looking to segue into a “behind-the-scenes” role, the paucity of documents from this period indicates that he got his wish. Drummer Johnny Blowers does recall a February 8, 1950 session with Phil Harris organized by Binyon, but otherwise Binyon’s activities as an organizer are largely unrecorded. A new home, warmer climate and slower pace on the West Coast were probably a welcome change for him. It also would have allowed him more time with his son Claude (born in 1940 and named after Larry’s father). Blowers actually secured the Harris date when he ran into Binyon in New York, who was on a vacation of all things.

Blowers also notes that Binyon was still playing with West Coast bands, though it must have been less hectic than the New York scene. Binyon frequently worked with Phil Harris in Los Angeles, previously co-writing “Bump On The Head Brown” for the entertainer along with Chauncey Morehouse and Frank Signorelli (now that would have been a trio!).

Binyon worked the 1952 and 1953 seasons of the Phil Harris and Alice Faye radio show alongside Nichols in Walter Scharf and Skippy Martin’s bands, recorded five numbers with Harris on December 27, 1953 for RCA Victor, packed his gig bag(s) for a tour of Asia in the early fifties and booked sessions for fellow players: it all must have been a breeze for this seasoned musician.

for Phil Harris care of discogsdotcomHe seems to have stopped playing completely by 1955. Based on Binyon’s track record, that must have been by choice rather than necessity. His story fades even further after that decision: marriage to a second wife in Nevada in 1962 and then a third wife in California in 1966, followed by a divorce two years later. Larry Binyon passed away on February 10, 1974 (followed by his brother Hugh in 1978 and then son Claude in 1999, both of whom died childless).

Other than personnel listings and occasional mention by his contemporaries, most of whom are now also gone, Larry Binyon has faded into the background behind more famous names. It’s easy to make a comparison between his legacy and his work, but that would dismiss the talent that earned Binyon such fast company in the first place. How else does one get to play with everyone from Tommy Dorsey to Benny Goodman to Billie Holiday and Fats Waller?

Binyon’s versatility and sheer ubiquity may have actually helped force him into the background. Had he stuck to one or even two instruments, it might have been easier for bandleaders and listeners to remember him. Yet jumping between dozens of dance bands, jazz groups, studio ensembles and radio orchestras, covering a multiplicity of parts as the schedule demanded, always on hand to make every arranger’s’ whim seem like an easy task, it was easy to see Binyon was capable of anything but probably harder to associate him with one thing.

There are enough accolades to show that he wasn’t just any sideman, yet not enough solos to determine what kind of a jazz musician he was (in a world where “jazz” is synonymous with “soloist,” anyway). Depending on how one hears his music, Binyon either lacked the ability or opportunity to inspire followers (though musician and writer Digby Fairweather detects Binyon’s influence in Georgie Auld’s earliest performances). In the end, it’s hard to depict him as a “jazz artist” and inaccurate to dismiss him as some studio drone.

Depending on how one reads his story, Larry Binyon is either a neglected musician, or a person who made a life’s work doing something he was very good at and presumably enjoyed very much. Whatever the interpretation, his ability as well as his impact on jazz and/or/a.k.a. American popular music is undeniable. He was right there next to some of music’s greatest names, as much by his choice as theirs. Maybe Larry Binyon was simply exactly where he wanted to be.

LarryBinyonCareOfDiscogsDotCom

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A Heavy Gig Bag And A Thick Phone Book: Larry Binyon In The Thirties

This post is another installment of my continuing series on the music and life of Larry Binyon. Feel free to read previous posts about why I’m covering Binyon, how he started out, his first records with Ben Pollack or the greater solo space he received away from Pollack, or just read on…

U.S. Census records state that in April 1930, Larry Binyon was renting a room in his hometown of Urbana, Illinois. Jazz discography shows that by this time, said “saxophonist” working in the industry of “orchestra” (a federal category, or Binyon’s own prestigious description?) was firmly settled in New York City.

Red Nichols Photo care of Stephen Hester

Red Nichols (care of Stephen Hester)

Binyon had stopped recording with popular bandleader Ben Pollack by mid January 1930, but his big sound is clearly audible in the sax section of Sam Lanin’s band on several dates from March through May of that year. A careless census taker may have counted Binyon while he was in town for his mother’s wedding to her second husband. It’s also possible that the twenty-two year old sideman simply neglected to change his address. He was certainly busy enough: his post-Pollack resume reads like a directory of the most popular names in jazz and popular music of the time. He was also working alongside the cream of New York’s musical crop. With Lanin alone, Binyon got to record with Tommy Dorsey, Miff Mole, Manny Klein, Leo McConville and Al Duffy.

He was also part of the veritable all-star band that Red Nichols assembled for the Broadway musical “Girl Crazy.” Binyon had already worked with the trumpeter and booker on a few sessions, including large, symphonic jazz sessions where he doubled flute, oboe and clarinet. Composer George Gershwin wanted a jazz band for “Girl Crazy.” Nichols assembled Pollack alumni Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Charlie and Jack Teagarden as well as drummer Gene Krupa among others. Binyon isn’t usually mentioned as being part of the group, but neither are several other players needed to fill out the band. Binyon’s familiarity with the other players as well as his ability to read and double would have made him a welcome addition to this (or any other) pit.

“Girl Crazy” opened on October 14, 1930. Nine days later Nichols recorded two tunes from the show with several members of the band, including Binyon. Binyon doesn’t get to solo on “I Got Rhythm,” and “Embraceable You” doesn’t leave much room to distinguish any of the musicians. It’s unclear whether Binyon would have preferred more solo opportunities, but he must have been more than used to an ensemble role by this point.

Binyon continued recording with Nichols and Lanin as well as Benny Goodman on some of the clarinetist and future swing powerhouse’s earliest sessions leading a big band in 1931. Goodman assigns Binyon straight, almost dutiful melodic statements on both “I Don’t Know Why” and “Slow But Sure.” He also gets a flowery flute lead on “What Am I Gonna’ Do For Lovin’?” switching to tenor sax as well as a darker tone and more swinging approach for a duet with Goodman on the last chorus:

Given Goodman’s disagreements with Pollack while in his band, it may seem ironic that both bandleaders took a similar approach to Binyon’s role. Yet by the time Goodman began leading bands, that role may not have necessarily reflected Binyon’s abilities as a soloist. Solo space on jazz and dance records grew increasingly limited during the early thirties. Depression-era listeners preferred more sedate pop arrangements to driving hot jazz numbers. Even with the most exciting soloists on hand (Goodman’s 1931 bands included the likes of Bunny Berigan and Eddie Lang), many studio dates from this period stay fairly tame. Binyon may have had a varied toolkit, but his bosses may have needed one specific device.

The joy in listening to a sideman like Binyon is not just listening for when he pops up but what he gets to do. When a band did get to cut loose, for example Roger Wolfe Kahn’s orchestra performing “Shine On Your Shoes,” Binyon could throw down a hot solo on tenor sax:

or use his brawny sound to heat up even straight melodies like “Sweet And Hot” with Nichols:

Binyon’s flute could add the requisite touch of sweetness and refinement as needed. It could also bring an unusual color to up-tempo numbers like “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” with the Charleston Chasers:

The combination of the Binyon’ flute with ensemble syncopations and Krupa’s drums points to more than just a sweet context. Musicologist and historian Gunther Schuller mentions Binyon’s flute as well as Glenn Miller’s arrangement as examples of a sound “well beyond the normal dividing lines between commercial dance music and late twenties jazz.”

Along with Albert Socarras (who had soloed on flute as early as 1929 on “Have You Ever Felt That Way?” with Clarence Williams) and Wayman Carver, Binyon was one of the first to bring the flute into a jazz context. His smoky introduction to the Boswell Sisters’ “Sentimental Gentleman From Georgia” must have made musicians and bandleaders reconsider the possibilities of this instrument in a jazz setting:

In addition to the Boswells, Binyon accompanied vocalists Grace Johnston, Phil Danenberg, Dick Robertson, Chick Bullock, Mildred Bailey and Ethel Waters during the early thirties. He was usually backing these singers alongside member of the same circle of top-notch New York musician that he would have known very well by this point. He impressed Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey enough to land work with their band.  At this point the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra was a smaller studio band, allowing Binyon room to solo on instrumentals such as “Mood Hollywood”:

and “Old Man Harlem”:

It’s unclear exactly what type of work Binyon landed outside of the studios during the early thirties. Arranger Don Walker recalls Binyon playing in the band for Hit Parade of 1933 as well as “first (legitimate) flute” in the 1935 musical Maywine. Walker and his copyist Romo Falk excitedly noted Binyon’s presence (expressing similar accolades for Binyon’s section mate, Artie Shaw).

Binyon played with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra for one month in 1936 before moving onto radio work, including jobs under Red Nichols’ direction, as well as other work outside of an expressly jazz context. It was around this time that Binyon also married his first wife, Polly. Seven years younger than Larry, she was born in Puerto Rico and living in Syracuse by 1935, before marrying Larry some time before 1940. The steadier work and more regular hours of radio may have eased his transition to married life, or vice-versa. Binyon even had time for a trip to Bermuda (though it is unclear whether it was for work, honeymoon or one last bachelor outing).

Binyon also did sax section work on jazz dates with Frank Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Bob Zurke and Dick McDonough during the mid to late thirties. McDonough was an experienced, well-connected guitarist who had his pick of sidemen for the few sessions he ever directed during 1936 and 1937. Binyon was on hand for two of McDonough’s dates, getting in some paraphrases as well as a quick-fingered, slightly more modern solo on “He Ain’t Got Rhythm”:

At this stage Binyon had the reputation as well as the chops to work in a variety of settings alongside some of the best players in New York. He even found the time to change his address: by 1940, one Larry Binyon, now a “musician” in the “orchestra” industry, was officially living in New York City.

1940 US Census per AncestryDotCom

I have hyperlinked to all sources but also wanted to personally thank the Red Nichols historian, Mr. Stephen Hester. His generosity of knowledge and time filled in many blanks when it came to Binyon’s work with Nichols. The next Larry Binyon post will focus on Binyon’s move to a behind-the-scenes role in music as well as his final years and legacy.

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A Sideman Working On The Side: Larry Binyon’s Solos

This post is part of a series covering the music and life of saxophonist Larry Binyon.  You can read  the earlier parts here, here and here, but this one has much less biography and a lot more music, so please feel free to dive right in!  A few of the titles listed do have alternate takes and I do look forward to covering those in the future, but for now I wanted to stick to (what I consider) the best examples of Binyon’s playing.  I hope you enjoy them.

Larry Binyon was talented (and fortunate enough) to have joined the Ben Pollack band just in time for its peak of popularity. He appeared on nearly every title cut under Pollack’s name, but side dates with studio pickup groups let the tenor saxophonist stretch out as more than a section player. He gets to join in with Pollack’s favored soloists on “Whoopee Stomp” under Irving Mills’s leadership, kicking off a string of solos featuring Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden and Jimmy McPartland:

It’s tempting to compare Binyon with these now-marquee names in terms of relaxed phrasing, catchy licks and bluesy inflection, but Binyon’s style works on different priorities. It doesn’t display the same technical confidence but remains driving and tense. Binyon rarely stays in one place, wriggling up and down phrases, emphasizing variety over linear continuity. Binyon played hot solos: no frills, high on energy and contrast yet very personal. Binyon pushes the beat but without the agitation and gritty tone of fellow tenor player Bud Freeman or his cohorts Eddie Miller and Babe Russin. Binyon’s approach is also far removed from the dense arpeggios and metallic tone of the Coleman Hawkins school.

Binyon’s tone, husky, reedy and very distinct, could be an asset unto itself. On “Wont’cha” with Pollack, Binyon gets a paraphrase (one of his few solos of any kind with Pollack) after the vocal that shows off his warm, centered sound:

It’s not an improvised solo but it is an effective orchestral voice, probably appreciated in a dance band setting. Twenties bandleaders would occasionally use a light-toned baritone sax in a melodic role, but it sounds like Binyon’s tenor providing the broad, cello-like lead on the transition to the last chorus of “A Japanese Dream” with Mills:

“Blue Little You” includes a similar voicing on its introduction and right after the vocal. Contrasted with the standard alto lead that immediately follows, it makes an especially colorful effect on what might otherwise be dismissed as a straight dance chart:

Binyon also tosses out an improvised bridge before the ensemble conclusion. His jagged lines come across as flip commentary on the vocalist’s elongated, slightly nasal delivery. Brief solo spots like this one allow Binyon a concentrated burst to say just enough in a few measures. He snaps into the final bridge of “Little Rose Covered Shack,” once again on McPartland’s heels, this time with snaking, clarinet-like lines along with his usual rich tone and tendency to begin phrases in the upper register:

He really cuts loose on one of the few mixed dates of the Jazz Age, a freewheeling session with no less than Fats Waller. With Waller as well as Teagarden, Red Allen, Albert Nicholas, Eddie Condon and Gene Krupa on hand, it’s no surprise that Binyon sounds like he’s having fun. He wails and moans (showing he also listened to Hawkins) through both the introduction and one chorus of “Ridin’ But Walkin’”:

On “Won’t You Get Off It Please?” Binyon sticks to declaratory, at times trumpet-like exclamations, popping out high notes and plunging into the lower register for the release:

Binyon also seems to enjoy himself on “Shirt Tail Stomp,” one of the novelty tunes that “the Pollack band without Pollack” recorded to satisfy popular demand. His big tone stays intact through all of the mooing and whinnying:

Benny Goodman “created” this number after a recording engineer overheard his band mocking a cornball jazz act. Binyon has the perhaps dubious honor of appearing on three of its five versions on record. In addition to reading, doubling and improvising, apparently he was also a capable musical clown.

careofsaxophonedotorgBinyon could obviously fit into a variety of musical settings, from Pollack’s snappy dance band setting to looser blowing sessions and everything between; trumpeter and band organizer Red Nichols had even started hiring him on orchestral pop dates modeled after Paul Whiteman (though mostly doubling oboe and flute as well as tenor sax, with Babe Russin handling solos). He was nothing if not versatile, and a versatile musician was usually a busy one.

By the summer of 1929, Goodman and McPartland had left the Pollack band. They were more than capably replaced by Charlie Teagarden and Matty Matlock. Jack Teagarden would stay on for another three years. Yet Binyon may have seen Goodman and McPartland’s departure as a sign that the Pollack band had peaked. He might have been smarting under the same conditions that drove them out of the band; Pollack had fired two of his top soloists for showing up to work with scuffed shoes! A good reputation as a multitalented player in New York would have enabled Binyon to forego the life of a touring musician. It also would have provided more opportunities to perform in different settings.

Something convinced Binyon to leave his first regular employer and a still widely respected band. Binyon’s last session with Pollack was in January 1930. As usual, he didn’t get any solos. One of the two tunes recorded at that session, “I’m Following You” featured yet another one of the leader’s comically earnest vocals. Larry Binyon might have simply been ready for something different.

The next Larry Binyon post will explore his work as a very busy freelancer during the early thirties, and include music with the Boswells, Dorseys, a young clarinetist named “Benny Goodman” first getting into the bandleading business and others.

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Making It Work: Larry Binyon With Pollack

This is the next part of a continuing (not contiguous) series of posts about the once oft-employed, now rarely discussed saxophonist Larry Binyon. For parts one and two, please see here and here respectively.

Much to Ben Pollack’s short-term benefit, his band and Larry Binyon parted ways following their December 7, 1927 recording session. Variety’s issue of January 25, 1928 reported that the band had already started a residency at the Club Bagdad in Chicago’s Pershing Hotel. By February 25 it had closed at the Bagdad and was onto New York City. Binyon might have played with the Pollack band during its remaining time in Chicago, but apparently Pollack had another saxophonist in mind for its next move.

Bud Freeman explains that Pollack first heard him play at a late-night jam session in Chicago, and was so impressed by the saxophonist’s solos with McKenzie and Condon’s Chicagoans that he asked Freeman join the Pollack band in New York. These now-famous recordings are widely considered the birth of the “Chicago style.” Yet it’s hard to believe their loose format was a decisive factor in Pollack’s decision. Pollack was running a jazz-infused dance orchestra, not a jam-oriented jazz band. He needed musicians with the ability and discipline to read written arrangement as well as improvise solos. Freeman never hid his distaste for dance band work and didn’t like New York. Pollack fired Freeman after three months for clowning around on the bandstand and then rehired him for an Atlantic City engagement in July, only to have Freeman quit at the end of the month.

Pollack Reed Section c. 1927: Benny Goodman, Fud Livingston and Gil Rodin

Pollack Reed Section c. 1927: Benny Goodman, Fud Livingston and Gil Rodin

After some traveling gigs and a brief dry spell, the Pollack band began a long-term engagement at the prestigious Park Central Hotel on September 28. Pollack already had Jimmy McPartland, Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden (who had joined in June) to contribute hot solos. By this point he was probably willing to sacrifice some improvisational fire for a third saxophonist who could, and would, do the job. That included doubling the numerous other reed instruments that Pollack, apparently inspired by bands such as Roger Wolfe Kahn’s, wanted to show off.

Binyon probably continued to work with Beasley Smith’s band or one of several bands in Chicago while Pollack was in New York. It’s uncertain when Binyon got to New York, whether Pollack sent for him or if he just happened to be one of the many musicians starting to move to the musical epicenter, but by October 1, 1928 Binyon was back on record with the Pollack band in New York.

With three powerful soloists and the band’s tendency to rely on written arrangements, Binyon didn’t get many solos on record with Pollack. With Benny Goodman frequently doubling alto and baritone saxes, he wasn’t even the only saxophone soloist.  Pollack instead capitalized on Binyon’s strength as an ensemble player.

A lush waltz like “Forever” or the muted trumpets, violins and (most likely Binyon’s) flute on “Let’s Sit And Talk About You” might not interest jazz listeners but the records work on strictly musical terms. Attention to dynamics, ensemble balance and lyricism are fairly consistent through even the Pollack’s band’s most commercial dates. Its sax section of Binyon, Goodman and lead alto Gil Rodin play with a bright, creamy blend, for example answering the full band on the Victor recording of “Futuristic Rhythm”:

or “From Now On,” on which they achieve an especially transparent sound, right down to Binyon’s purring tenor:

Talented musicians, a steady gig at a famous venue and sheer hustle helped the Pollack band grow incredibly popular, allowing them to move onto radio work, Broadway, various touring appearances and a few short films. The band is featured exclusively on a Vitaphone film shot on July 29, 1929.  Binyon is seen in the middle of the sax section, soprano sax, clarinet and flute impressively displayed in front of him while he plays tenor throughout:

Pollack obviously liked Binyon; he appears on every title cut under Pollack’s name (save for one small group session by “Ben’s Bad Boys” in January 1929). Yet a dependable player from a well-known band who could read, double and improvise was bound to get additional offers. Based on his discography, Larry Binyon was more than happy to work on the side.

The next part of this Larry Binyon story will concentrate on his solo work with various Irving Mills pickup groups during the late twenties as well as sessions with Fats Waller and Red Nichols. It won’t be a complete solography, but it will make a  very enjoyable Larry Binyon playlist.

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Chicago And Back Again: Larry Binyon’s Early Years

This is the second part of a discussion about reedman and discographical ubiquity Larry Binyon. For why, read here. For who, read on.

Lawrence “Larry” Fiffe Binyon was born in Illinois on September 16, 1908, the younger of Claude and Josephine Armstrong Binyon’s two children (their first child Hugh was born in 1905). Census records show the Binyon family renting one unit of a two-family home in Chicago’s twenty-seventh ward in 1910, with Claude Binyon listed as an unemployed funeral director and somehow still employing a live-in servant. By 1920 the family was renting a single home in the city of Urbana, about 150 miles south of Chicago. Claude now worked as a secretary for an oil company. Josephine was now also employed as a music teacher working out of the Binyon home, now servant-less.

Larry BinyonUrbana was a much less densely populated city, and census records show more white-collar jobs among the Binyons’ neighbors in Urbana than those in Chicago. Perhaps quality of life was a factor in their move. Maybe Urbana was simply where Claude could find another steady paycheck, albeit now supplemented with a second income. If there was financial hardship, it could have influenced Larry’s understanding of the value of a dollar. Claude’s death in 1924, when Larry was just sixteen years old, certainly would have put a financial strain on the family. Larry might have developed his later well-documented work ethic at an early age.

It’s unclear how early Larry Binyon started playing music, but safe to assume that his mother shared at least some of her musical knowledge. By age eighteen, Binyon was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, listed on E flat (soprano) flute in the school’s concert band as well as (standard) flute and piccolo in its first regimental band during the 1926-27 school year.

Binyon would only spend one year at college. By 1927 he was already playing professionally in Chicago as part of Beasley Smith’s band, which also included drummer Ray McKinley and clarinetist Matty Matlock. Drummer and future swing era star Gene Krupa was playing across the street from Beasley in Joe Kayser’s band, and Binyon would have encountered an even wider pool of talent in the jazz mecca. Flute may have been Binyon’s first instrument, or at least his primary one at school, but tenor sax would have by now become his main horn for dance bands.

Later on that year drummer, bandleader and talent incubator Ben Pollack came back to Chicago after an unsuccessful gig at the Venice Ballroom in California. His third saxophonist and arranger Fud Livingston had left the band earlier that year (to work with conductor Nat Shilkret in New York City). It’s unclear exactly when or how Binyon hooked up with Pollack, but he was with the Pollack band on December 12, 1927 when it returned to the Victor’s Chicago studio after a five-month hiatus. He even got to solo!

On the final bridge of “Waitin’ For Katie,” Binyon stays pretty close to the melody on the first take and loosens up slightly for the second one. Both takes find Binyon jumping in on a break and ripping into the upper register (here is the issued first take):

Like many jazz musicians from this period, Binyon “routines” his solo but still has something unique to offer. His reedy tone and declaratory, trumpet-like phrasing are very different from Coleman Hawkins’s metal and rapid-fire arpeggios. Binyon has been compared to Bud Freeman, but Freeman generally played in a more agitated style at this time. Binyon sounds more relaxed even at faster tempos. Stated bluntly, he just played fewer notes than those guys.

Apparently Pollack liked Binyon’s notes; his tenor saxophone gets another solo on the session’s other issued side, “Memphis Blues,” where Binyon once again varies things just slightly between two takes (the issued first take follows):

He sounds tentative playing counterpoint in the introduction, and his brief solo might not seem like a model of construction. Yet he doesn’t get much room to stretch out on the W.C. Handy standard. Fud Livingston’s arrangement inserts some snappy chord substitutions from the band into the middle of Binyon’s chorus, which Binyon leaps into with a beautiful, well-executed lick. His preceding improvisation/routine is closer to an earlier, pre-Armstrong tradition that emphasized variety over contiguity. It’s also the work of a nineteen-year old cutting his first record. Better things were still to come but this was an admirable start.

Pollack’s band was filled with young talent, including eighteen-year old Benny Goodman and twenty-year old Jimmy McPartland. They usually got more solos, and have certainly received more ink since this session, but Binyon got to play alongside them and make the Pollack band possible. He must have been doing something worth talking about.

The next installment of this Larry Binyon story, which might not be the next post, will talk about Binyon’s career during the late twenties and early thirties, highlighting some of his best recordings. Hope you (continue to) enjoy it!

pollackband1929careofredhotjazzdotcom

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Getting To Know Larry Binyon

Larry BinyonAnd we’re back! Curious how I spent my holiday vacation? Read on…

Reality television notwithstanding, ubiquity and fame are two very different accomplishments. Just ask Larry Binyon. More practically, Google him: he appears on dozens of record dates (150 jazz sessions alone according to Tom Lord), usually listed alongside some legendary names. Yet that’s all most historians and musicologist have to say about him. Larry Binyon is all over jazz history but not a well-known part of it.

He must have been an impressive musician to get work so consistently, especially with the likes of Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, Red Nichols, the Boswell Sisters, the Dorsey Brothers and other famous names. He also doubled several instruments, mostly playing tenor saxophone but contributing on flute when it was rarely heard in a jazz context. Binyon could also improvise in addition to read and double. Given the company he kept, he got to read and double far more often than he got to take a solo.

Years later and with very few solos on record, sidemen like Binyon can seem like historical packaging material. They surround the names we know best, provide musical as well as personnel background but otherwise end up padding the “real” artistic goods. After all, isn’t jazz “really” about improvisation? Weren’t there “better” improvisers around? Didn’t other musicians double? Couldn’t “anyone” have read the chart, as Binyon did?

Perhaps, but only from the luxury of listening decades later. To musicians, someone who could do all three (and maybe even show up on time and in uniform) would be a precious resource. There must have been a reason why Larry Binyon got to play so often. He also recorded quite a bit, even some of those improvised solos that jazz purists like to hunt down between all the written stuff, which Binyon also made possible. That sounds like far more than filler, and it definitely sounds like an important part of the music.

So holiday vacation was spent researching Larry Binyon. It began with sheer curiosity, and the hope of writing one blog post. A few thousand words later, I decided to spare the reader’s attention and give myself even more time for research, so I’m going to explore the life of this musician, and more importantly his music, over a few blog posts. There isn’t a ton of material out there on Binyon, and (goodness knows) it’s not all in one place, so I figure he warrants a couple of entries on my modest blog. The next post will cover Binyon’s earliest days, from growing up in Illinois to his first jazz record.

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Black Music, White Records, Not Grey

http://www.uproxx.com/webculture/2013/08/12-reasons-why-we-want-anna-kendrick-to-be-our-best-friend/

One of the earliest, and still funniest, Saturday Night Live skits I ever saw features host and musical guest Ray Charles playing himself, alongside several members of the cast playing a popular young vocal group. As the “Young Caucasians, ” they give Charles’ soul hit “What’d I Say” a treatment more Branson, Missouri than Apollo Theater. Charles’ soulful voice is replaced with a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, irredeemably hokey chorus of teenagers, his gritty arrangement polished down to a cheery, utterly sexless sheen.

Charles’ manager tells him this is the pop version of the song. His further explanation that Charles’ recording will be played in the South and “Negro radio stations”, not to mention the Caucasians’ Brady Bunch-esque fashions and nasal honking, tell Charles as well as the audience that they just heard the white version of “What’d I Say.”

careofglennmillerorchestradotcomThe “white version” comes up as a joke, intentional or otherwise, throughout the history of American popular culture. Another personal favorite is a scene from the 2002 film Undercover Brother, where the titular character asks about Michael Bolton’s cover of Sisqo’s “Thong Song.” There are many more to choose from out there.

Critics as well as comedians like to include white versions in their work. For critics, the white version is an analytical tool, a deviation falling short of some non-white normative case. Critics’ white versions are usually subtler as well as less amusing, and it’s harder to select a favorite, but they still keep coming up with them.

Whether employed as a punch line or a critical idea, white versions tend to be deemed stiff and uptight, lacking the artistic sincerity and raw expressiveness of earlier, more “authentic” versions. As those corny Young Caucasians demonstrate, white versions are also sanitized for popular i.e. majority (i.e. white) consumption. That digestibility also coincides with the idea that the white version are also the more commercially successful (and ergo, artistically compromised) version.

Prewar jazz, bound up in popular music and entertainment, seems especially rife with examples to spur comedians and critics. Listening to the Benson Orchestra of Chicago’s recording of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wolverine Blues,” I can practically hear comments from some Gunther Schuller-inspired Statler and Waldorf:

The Benson Orchestra’s crisp articulation and bright sound are very different from any other “Wolverine Blues.” For some listeners, this is probably the “white(st) version” of the tune. Personally I just hear a band more rooted in ragtime than jazz, approaching a now familiar composition on their terms.

At a time when music publishers reigned supreme, the same tune could receive dozens of recordings by different bands of all different shapes and sizes, all giving it different treatments. British bandleader Bert Firman put his own stamp on Fletcher Henderson’s “The Stampede”:

Saxophonist and author Paul Lindemeyer explains:

On Henderson’s recording, the studio has a “hard walls” ambience and everyone seems to be in the middle distance, so no voices predominate. What you hear is a performance, not so much an arrangement. With Firman you actually hear the arrangement and discern the parts. This is a published stock by the dean of stock arrangers, Frank Skinner, who squared a few corners away and added a couple of “hot-cha” and “vo-de-o-do” figures but otherwise let Henderson’s work stand proud.

While clearly digging into Henderson’s tune, the Firman band also pushes the beat slightly more than Henderson’s orchestra while relying less on improvisation. They still provide an energetic, unique touch to a tune heard in countless jazz history courses and boxed sets. Yet the juxtaposition of Firman’s tenser rhythm and written parts with Henderson’s laidback beat and soloists is probably more than enough to peg the Firman record as just another white version.

If they’re not dismissed as outright imitations or sterilized products, critics also reduce white versions to needlessly complicated attempts at copying the more “natural” original. This blurring of “experimental” and “pedantic” may as well be called “Red Nichols syndrome.” Nichols’ music, including his approach to material primarily associated with seminal Black jazz artists, reflects his own style, taste, and cultural/musical upbringing. His “Heebie Jeebies” features a string of harmonically ranging solos and a wittily arranged double-trumpet soli:

It doesn’t introduce scat singing, and Nichols’ flip, facile cornet is a long way from Louis Armstrong’s golden, swinging sound. Likewise, Nichols’ “Black Bottom Stomp” settles into a cool, metrical groove and transparency that may seem unusual compared to composer Jelly Roll Morton’s recording:

Nichols’ music doesn’t lack anything; it just has different musical priorities but remains distinct and very personal. Even without altering the course of jazz history, that has to count for something in jazz. Unfortunately without a healthy dose of the blues, a loose rhythm, vocal inflections and (perhaps most damning) a corresponding narrative about the artist’s poverty, recordings by Nichols and others like him, when mentioned at all, are often relegated to clever knockoffs.

Not being jazz is one thing, but many white versions are consigned to an ersatz, second-rate category that’s as condescending as it is subjective. Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz splices Chick Webb and Benny Goodman’s recordings of “Don’t Be That Way” side by side to illustrate those bands playing against one another at the Savoy ballroom. Yet it also saddles Webb’s drive next to Goodman’s relaxed bounce in a calculated manner that might have made Lorne Michaels smile:

It’s easy to hear which group has the faster tempo, more sedate feel, harder drive, wider range of dynamics, etc. on Edgar Sampson’s arrangement. It’s impossible to hear what went on at the Savoy ballroom on May 11, 1937. Burns’ point is to show the viewer which band is “best,” as dancer Frankie Manning puts it, but we might just be hearing two unique performances of the same chart:

Seventy-six years later and beyond the Lindy-hoppers’ concerns, can we detect diversity rather than victory, musical priorities rather than stylistic purity? Can we forgive Benny Goodman for making so much money?

As big as the jazz tent has become, jazz’s white album may never be more than a footnote. Ultimately the point isn’t whether Goodman, Nichols, Firman, the Benson Orchestra or for that matter Armstrong, Henderson, Morton or any band are playing the way we expect or if they’re even playing jazz; it’s whether the music has something to say on its own terms. If not, is the music there for productive historical and stylistic comparison, or narrow artistic teleology? I still laugh at the Ray Charles skit but I now know that there’s a grain of truth to it that just isn’t funny. The world isn’t a comedy skit. Things are much more complicated, even if they do often come down to black and white, and more than music.

Hate the Man, Hear the Music (and Make Sure the Bandstand is Big Enough)

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A Day In The Studio With Dick McDonough

A-269804-1135084302Despite, or perhaps due to, being one of the most in-demand guitarists of the swing era, Dick McDonough rarely had the opportunity to lead his own record sessions. When he did get a chance to direct an ensemble in the mid thirties, he had the ears and connections to select some of the best jazz musicians in New York City. Record company ARC had the studio and cash, so they supplied the music and oversight.

After an impeccably played but soporific inaugural session of sweet music and waltzes on June 4, 1936, the company seemed to start hearing this group’s potential at their next session on June 23. Bunny Berigan’s melody statements on trumpet, Claude Thornhill’s piano solos and Artie Shaw’s clarinet obbligatos spice up Tin Pan Alley soft-serve like “Summer Holiday” and “I’m Grateful To You.” All three players are used in the same way, even at the same time in both arrangements, hinting at some A&R calculation of what a little musical individuality might do for sales. Things continue to loosen up on “Dear Old Southland” with a characteristically smart, swinging solo by Shaw and some brightly harmonized ensembles. “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” swings even harder and leaves even more room for improvisation.

By August 4, 1936 and with slightly different personnel, those highly organized, jazz-flavored dance band arrangements have been replaced by open-ended jazz charts that are also very danceable. Dick McDonough and His Orchestra finally get a chance to stretch out on four tunes (“Dardanella, It Ain’t Right, Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” and “In A Sentimental Mood“):

MI0002897039Berigan lives up to the accolades of Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and generations of musicians and fans devastated by his early death. His tone is blistering yet relentlessly warm. He swaggers into “Dardanella” and “It Ain’t Right” and adds a plaintive element to Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood.” Toots Mondello, best known for his section work with the big bands of Benny Goodman and others, is ( I believe) the confident, joyous clarinetist on these tracks, and (definitely) the rhapsodic alto sax voice on “In A Sentimental Mood.” Adrian Rollini’s bass saxophone, freed from its role in the rhythm section of so many twenties bands, is now even wittier and more flexible.  His vibraphone also adds another color to the band. Drummer Cozy Cole is prominent throughout, adding a popping feel that’s part Jazz Age and part Swing Era to “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” (just listen to his splash cymbal at the end of the first chorus). Vocalist Buddy Clark clearly listened to Louis Armstrong and absorbed what he heard; Clark clips and elongates his phrases while never sounding like some commercial concession.

The once absurdly busy and now woefully forgotten tenor saxophonist Larry Binyon gets in some husky solos, with pianist Sammy Prager and bassist Paul Prince rounding out the ensemble. McDonough’s solos are spare both musically and literally. Maybe he wanted to give his colleagues extra room, making him a modest and/or smart leader as well as a tasteful guitarist.  Judging by the energy on these sides, all the players were happy just to breathe.

Too bad that the very next day, as though hung over from too much improvisation and swing, the label was back to serving sedate tempos and sugary, occasionally mind-numbing words (why would a songwriter think that “color scheme” is a suitable lyric for anything other than a paint shop jingle?). On this session and McDonough’s remaining ones, the beat bounces more than swings and most of the tunes are generically pleasant. They’re also much more tightly arranged. Even Clark slides back into the role of legato pop singer.

It would be hard for a band like this to make a “bad” record, even an uninspired one.  There are still beautiful, at times creative touches to find over the course of McDonough’s twelve sessions for ARC.  He would in turn never lead another record session on this or any other label.  It’s difficult to say whether McDonough was discouraged by his experience as a leader or simply too busy to care. He just did what he could, when he could.

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A Stan King Playlist

Photo Care of @onlyapaprmoon

Photo from Timeless CD CBC 1-090 courtesy of @onlyapaprmoon

Like most early jazz drummers, Stan King was not well served by technology. He first appeared on hundreds of sessions with the California Ramblers, including the band’s numerous offshoots for different labels, starting in the early twenties. Acoustic recording techniques at that time limited the equipment that drummers could use and weren’t kind to what remained. King does burst out of the Five Birmingham Babies (a.k.a. the California Ramblers) on “Arkansas” to bang some springy drum rudiments on Ray Kitchingham’s banjo:

Unfortunately outbursts like this one were rare. King didn’t use standard acoustically sanctioned percussion like cymbals and blocks as much as his contemporaries Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds and Chauncey Morehouse. So despite all the records, it’s hard to hear what or how King was playing early on his career. Either way it got him plenty of work. He must have been doing something worth hearing.

Based on slightly later recordings, it involved plenty of snare drum. Jazz drumming now tends to emphasize metal as the primary beat maker, yet as “Broken Idol” with the Ramblers shows, King could really move a band with drum skins. It’s a pity he was so skilled with what amounted to kryptonite for most recording engineers of the twenties:

Aside from a few cymbal crashes and the faux-oriental blocks and tom-toms, King’s main rhythmic medium here is his snare and bass drums. He keeps up a simple but buoyant bounce alongside Tommy Felline’s banjo and steps out behind Pete Pumiglio’s (red hot) alto sax solo. The brushes are pure momentum, more than compensating for Ward Lay’s slightly ponderous tuba. There’s none of the military-style heft that so many historians associate with prewar, snare-centric jazz drumming.

King’s work with Frank Trumbauer’s orchestra demonstrates his light but propulsive touch on drumheads, while never drawing too much attention to the wheels moving the band. “Futuristic Rhythm” includes a head-bobbing rhythm in the first chorus as well as percolating accompaniment to the leader’s vocal and cymbals behind Bix Beiderbecke:

King’s airtight press rolls and last chorus backbeat on “I Like That” (a.k.a. “Loved One“) are simple, impeccably timed and very effective:

Listening to King nearly sixty years later, renowned drummer Mel Lewis pointed to King’s “clean” style with more than faint praise. A crisp, precise and utterly unobtrusive approach defines King’s style more than any part of the drum set. He was above all an ensemble player who rarely soloed but always made sure that the band was “well fed” (to paraphrase bass sage Walter Page describing the role of the rhythm section).

With the Charleston Chasers, King leaves most of the rhythmic heavy lifting on “Loveable and Sweet” and “Red Hair and Freckles” (what were these guys thinking about on this session?) to pianist Arthur Schutt and bassist Joe Tarto:

Dancers and jazz aficionados may not be listening for King’s sizzling brushes and tapping rims, for how his drums click in with Tarto’s bass and produce a deliciously buzzy sonority or for his simple but firm beat. Listening to those touches reveals how subtly King could color and catalyze a band. It also points to an attention to detail and a knack for musical nuance that might not be heard could be felt. For example while many drummers use press rolls, and King relied on them throughout his career, the way that he loosens his press rolls up behind Tommy Dorsey’s trumpet solo on “Hot Heels” with Eddie Lang makes a difference:

Audio wizard, historian and trombonist David Sager recalls an “old-time drummer” he met at a gig in California years ago “who nearly shouted when he said, ‘Stan King had the best press roll in the business!’” King’s press rolls with none other than Louis Armstrong on Seger Ellis’ “S’Posin” might not impress on their own, but Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardi explains that “Armstrong liked loud, emphatic drumming and he obviously dug what King was putting down.”

[Listen to "S’Posin" via Riccardi's outstanding blog here, and subscribe while you're at it.]

According to Richard Sudhalter King didn’t read music. His “natural drive and quick ear” were enough to make him one of the most in-demand drummers in New York during the twenties and thirties, performing with Paul Whiteman, Jean Goldkette, the Boswell Sisters, Ben Selvin, the Dorsey Brothers and Benny Goodman among others. A session directed by bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini finds King with the cream of the New York jazz crop at that time on standards such as” Sugar” and  “Davenport Blues”:

On “Somebody Loves Me,” King lays out behind George Van Eps’ solo, which allows his guitar to get heard and changes up the ensemble texture, but digs in behind Goodman’s clarinet and Arthur Rollini’s tenor saxophone while easing back behind trumpeter Mannie Klein and trombonist Jack Teagarden. It’s a model of sensitive, rhythmic jazz drumming (or “dance band” drumming, depending on one’s preferred pigeonhole):

King could also turn up the heat on his own. On “The Man From The South” with Rube Bloom, he locks in with Adrian Rollini, tosses out fast, snappy fills and bears down just a little harder behind Goodman before making room for Rollini’s solo:

On “Here Comes Emily Brown,” again with the Charleston Chasers but without Joe Tarto’s booming slap bass, King add a sizzle to his shuffle behind Tommy Dorsey’s trombone while his cowbell accents practically kick Benny Goodman from behind. Fills and backbeat on the out chorus also boot the ensemble:

King even gets some spotlight in a call and response episode with the ensemble on “Freeze and Melt” with Lang:

Occasionally King would get away from a steady beat and toss out unexpected accents and syncopations, for example early on his career behind Bobby Davis’ alto solo on “That Certain Party” with the Goofus Five (a.k.a. the California Ramblers):

or his offbeat rim “bombs” behind Jimmy Dorsey’s alto on “You’re Lucky To Me”:

Yet it’s all within the context of the band. Record after record shows King to be a clean, precise, utterly musical drummer. While his preferred instrumentation may have limited his recorded legacy, that same unflashy style may have hindered his historical one. Singer Helen Ward, speaking about King’s tenure with Benny Goodman’s band, said “we called him strictly a society type of musician. Everything he played was ‘boom-cha, boom-cha.’ There was no fire there.” Surprisingly enough Benny Goodman, who King not only played with but frequently pushed on record, described King as “merely adequate.”

The entry for King in the Encyclopedia of Popular Music describes “an exceptionally good dance band drummer with meticulous time [whose] jazz work always left something to be desired. Listening to, for example, Goodman’s recordings in late 1934 will reveal how King’s playing never lifts the band in the way Gene Krupa did when he took over as drummer…” John Chilton describes Louis Armstrong’s “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket” as a “typical example of [King’s] somewhat foursquare playing:

King isn’t Krupa, Dodds, Sid Catlett or for that matter Elvin Jones, but it’s easy to imagine any of those players taking the same approach that King does given the thin material, flimsy arrangement and the fact that this is really Armstrong’s show. Riccardi astutely points out King’s “tasty” accents during Armstrong’s opening trumpet chorus, and the fact that “relaxation is the key” here. There’s a difference between playing stiffly and playing appropriately, a difference King was more than experienced enough to understand.

In the stylistic wake of louder, better-recorded and busier drummers, it is easy to overlook someone like King, who performed an essential role seamlessly and without drawing attention to his work. What some overlook, others celebrated. Drummer Chauncey Morehouse would praise King for his solid time years after his colleague’s death (when Morehouse led his own date playing his patented N’Goma drums, he chose King to handle traps duty).  Fud Livingston thought King was “the world’s greatest drummer!” Saxophonist and historian Loren Schoenberg noted how King continued to get work despite his well-known status as a “fall-down drunk.” It didn’t seem to matter; King got the job done.

Jazz historian Scott Yanow, who credited King for his “fresh” sound, explains that King’s alcoholism finally did get the best of him: King eventually took a low-key job with former California Ramblers sideman Chauncey Grey before fading from attention and passing away in 1949. King made his last recordings ten year earlier, with pianist (and fellow victim of alcoholism) Bob Zurke. “I’ve Found A New Baby” wasn’t the last thing King recorded but it provides explosive closure:

Fud Livingston’s arrangement gives King and the rest of the band plenty of room. King is a force of nature, crisp and light as always but distinctly forward in the mix, perhaps the influence of what Krupa and Chick Webb were bringing to the table at the time. King still remains his own man, with press rolls in first chorus and rim shots and backbeats egging on Zurke’s contrapuntal flurries and Sterling Bose’s trumpet. At a time when most drummers were emphasizing cymbals and a steady horizontal flow, King stuck to skins and a charging but tight vertical feel. He had something unique to contribute and put the needs of the band first. That certainly sounds like a jazz drummer or maybe a just a good band drummer, but definitely a drummer worth hiring, and hearing.

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Keeping Hot Jazz “Topical”

keepcalmomaticdotcodotukWhat will the 2013 United States Congress and Guy Lombardo’s drummer eventually have in common? No one will remember what either did for a living!

For all the Federal employees reading this blog,

For Speaker Boehner,

For President Obama,

and for anyone reading here in the States,

Keep laughing at trouble, because the alternative is far less pleasant.

All kidding aside, my sincere apologies for that earlier comparison. Here’s a pretty hot number from the man who brought us “the sweetest music this side of Heaven”:

George Gowans, wherever you are, sorry for that for that comparison with Congress.

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