Tag Archives: call and response

Great for Dancing, Not for Filing: The Hot Dance Effect

“Hot dance” has always seemed like a polite way to say “old music with horns that isn’t jazz, but still has balls.”

Like every other era in American music, the twenties had its share of bland, banal and ruthlessly commercial trifles. Ironically the “Jazz Age” also produced some of the most touching and inventive jazz on record.

Hot dance records fall somewhere between: not earthy or improvised enough to be christened jazz, yet much more inspired and inspiring than the sonic wallpaper lining most dance halls and living rooms at the time.

The thin line gets a lot thicker when comparing the sedate bounce of the Nat Shilkret band on “Glad Rag Doll”:

 

with the California Ramblers’ recording of the same tune:


The beauty of that second side rests in the way the Ramblers (d/b/a “The Golden Gate Orchestra”) pull at this nice little stock arrangement of this nice little song about some nice little girl getting passed around between sexual partners. The band treats the chart like their own plaything, with a rhythm leaning more towards fraternity stomp than society glide.

They start with a grand introduction and straight melody statement, with saxes cool as ice in a tumbler and a violin hovering at the end of their phrases like a dour chaperone. It makes Frank Cush’s slashing trumpet on the bridge sound that much more aggressive, hinting at what this girl is up to after all the party guests have left.

Most dance records of the time added variety with an improvised eight bars, or a jazzy half chorus if the bandleader was especially daring. The Ramblers devote an entire chorus to a sweaty, agitated exchange between Sam Ruby’s brawny tenor and Al Duffy’s now unbuttoned violin. Stan King pops his cymbals behind Duffy, and Cush sounds twice as defiant when he comes back for another bridge.

A tear jerking ensemble comes up only to be interrupted by some cutting alto (Carl Orech? Harold Marcus?), and the big-shouldered, Movietone-esque coda feels more like a concession than a finale. What started out as a peppy but mild dance record finishes as war between the sedation of the ballroom and the sexuality of the speakeasy.

For most commentators, the predominance of arranged material as well as the Ramblers’ emphasis on a very upbeat downbeat steers this side clear of jazz, yet it’s hardly lame, tame, generic pop. The players’ unique sound materializes even as they stick to written parts. There’s none of the wide open jam session feel that would later be synonymous with jazz, but the soloists burst forward with concision as well as spontaneity. It’s smart, rhythmic and sincere, and it even earned its practitioners a paycheck. Until iTunes comes up with a hot dance store, it’s close enough to lump in with jazz.

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No, Really, Please “Hold That Tiger”

“If you can’t say something nice, put it on a blog” often seems like the new conventional wisdom.  This particular piece of web attempts to explain what’s great, rather than wallow in conjecture over what misses some imaginary mark.  Yet the rules of social media notwithstanding, occasionally it’s helpful to explore dislikes as well as “likes.”

The straw hat with red suspenders crowd may have relegated “Tiger Rag” to feline onomatopoeia and exaggerated hijinks, yet the Dixieland favorite was also the pre-war equivalent  of “Rhythm” changes: an easy, well-known blowing vehicle for jazz bands and soloists.  Tom Lord’s online discography lists 933 recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s 1917 hit, and Brian Rust‘s discography shows 113 “Tiger Rag” records through 1942 (not counting all the contrafacts spawned by its well-worn chord changes).  At the same time familiarity breeds contempt, and Fletcher Henderson’s single recording of this ubiquitous number illustrates one band that may have been sick of all that roaring.

Leading one of the most admired bands of his time and boasting topflight talent such as Coleman Hawkins, Bobby Stark, Benny Carter and John Kirby, the chance to hear Henderson’s orchestra cut loose over a standard could have been awe-inspiring. Instead, they start with cliche, lugubrious trombone glissandi over a workmanlike beat. The band trots out a variation of the familiar opening theme that merely stamps rather than stomps or swings. They sound cohesive, professional, and very tired. The short-lived Crown label’s boxy sound doesn’t help:

Henderson and company close the first chorus and pick up more steam playing Bix Beiderbecke’s “Tiger” variation [at 0:37], with Russell Smith’s lead trumpet prominent. Trombonist Claude Jones then answers the ensemble’s statements while maintaining his own internal narrative. A snappy, Armstrong-inspired brass section closes out the call and response chorus just as things start to heat up. The sax soli that follows points to a Benny Carter arrangement, but its predictable symmetry as well as the rest of the chart’s leaden feel belie his usually galvanizing work.

The chase chorus between trumpeter Bobby Stark and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, two of the most individual soloists of the time, should have been an event in itself. Instead, Stark’s sizzling opening break devolves into some showy figures that fail to pan out, and Hawkins sounds uninspired. He mostly relies on tepid arpeggios and displays little of the ferocious, vibrato-laden chop and chug of his early thirties style. Russell Procope’s clarinet solo maintains a static energy, followed by the band huffing and puffing out the final chorus. This type of call and response riff would inspire thousands of imitations throughout the swing era; here it sounds dutiful and generic, a pale copy of an effect yet to be popularized. Even Smith’s usually clear tone now sounds desiccated, at times piercing.

This “Tiger Rag” session was the Henderson band’s sixth recording date after a nineteen-month hiatus from the studios. Jazz historian Phil Schapp believes that, “The Great Depression dismantled a great band but it didn’t do so overnight.”  Three years earlier Henderson had been injured in an automobile accident that friends and family said forever diminished his attentiveness and drive, and by the time his band recorded “Tiger Rag” in March 1931, they were sharing their longtime gig at the fabled Roseland Ballroom with several competitors. Henderson and his men may have been exhausted by more than the music on their stands.

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