Tag Archives: Coleman Hawkins

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 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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Coleman Hawkins Plays Bass Sax

The possibility of a bigger, louder Coleman Hawkins may seem like a blessing or a nightmare, and the idea of a humbler Hawkins welcome but preposterous. Yet his bass saxophone playing encompasses all of these possibilities. During the twenties the musically extroverted, relentlessly competitive Hawkins doubled on the instrument with varying results.

Hawkins never sounds entirely confident on the bass saxophone, committing some clams that would be unimaginable on his regular horn of tenor sax. Yet even with a few slips towards the end of his solo on “Spanish Shawl” with Fletcher Henderson, his power and sheer heft make an impression:

Hawkins lacks the agility and tonal colors of bass sax legend Adrian Rollini. Unlike Rollini, he also doesn’t impress with bass lines behind the ensemble. He leaves the heavy lifting of the rhythm section to Henderson’s piano and Charlie Dixon’s banjo but comes alive for breaks and solos. His lines are an extension of his chugging, arpeggiated tenor, with some burbling low notes adding humor and force. His sound is burry, metallic and at times slightly cutting.

It’s also very personal and deeply effective (boxy acoustics notwithstanding). Pushing the beat behind Charlie Green’s trombone before barreling in on the bridge, Hawkins seems to take “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie” literally, from out of dance band repertoire and into jam session territory:

Hawkins supposedly enjoyed the bass sax despite its background role and its difficulties. Rex Stewart tells of Hawkins struggling with it in the studio, desperately trying “to make the beast sound musical” before storming out of the session. The fact that Hawkins enjoyed this elephantine double far more than the smaller clarinet says a lot about his musical priorities as well as his personality. Hawkins wanted to be heard, and adding the darker tone, louder volume and sheer bark of the bass sax must have seemed like a no-brainer.

Hop Off” ends up sounding tailor made for Hawkins’ bass sax. He inserts gutty pops underneath the martial fanfare of the introduction before segueing into a pumping two-beat feel alongside the band:

Hawkins’ interplay with the ensemble, his accents behind the bursting second theme and his accompaniment behind Buster Bailey’s clarinet also stand out. He closes the side with a dirty break in his deliciously vertical late twenties style (and on “Rough House Blues” he adds a similarly funky atmosphere with another bluesy break). Hawkins would later disavow these sounds as a youthful novelty, but then again there really is no accounting for taste.

Maybe He Didn't Think He'd Look as Cool with the Horn a Foot Taller Than He Is.

Maybe He Didn’t Think He’d Look as Cool with the Horn a Foot Taller Than He Is.

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Spirituals, Blues, Classical Music and Juggling Tightrope Walkers

Even if vaudeville was dying or dead when jazz musicians first started to record, their memories of performing with the popular travelling entertainment must have still been fresh. Aside from the spoken banter animating many early jazz sides, the music itself points back to the singers, actors, comedians and other acts these players backed as part of an honest day’s work out on the road.

For me, those connections to the circuit are best heard in the sweeping, pseudo-dramatic minor key sections coloring so many of these sides. Sherwin Dunner describes the “archaic melodramatic strain” that begins the Pickett/Parham Apollo Strutters’ “Mojo Strut” in just such a context.  It could just as easily introduce the villain of some boardwalk musical as segue into the Strutters’ thumping:

Vaudeville was neither the Globe or La Scala: its characters and sentiments were broad but rarely deep.  Dewey Jackson’s band turns the minor key introduction of “She’s Crying For Me” into just such a “theatrical” experience.  When clarinets and a Latin-inspired tuba pick up on the theme later on in the chart, its connection to the lovelorn title or the band’s otherwise upbeat sound becomes even more of a mystery. In the spirit of vaudeville, it does offer plenty of variety:

Fletcher Henderson’s way with “Variety Stomp” says it all, with storming, comically sinister harmonies, the contrasting major key sections and Benny Morton’s circus tent glissandi on top of June Cole’s ominous tuba. It might not be the most cohesive arrangement but it does make for a hell of a show:

Extended improvisations in a brooding minor key occur frequently enough in jazz today, but this type of stage band whimsy and kitchen-sink approach to arrangement belong to a different aesthetic.  As for vaudeville, it could be histrionic, relentlessly varied and at times garish. It makes you wonder what these bands could have pulled off had they lived to witness reality television.

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Clarence Williams: Good, Great and Gone

Speaking of neglected talent, where do you put a successful pianist, singer, bandleader, composer, manager and publisher in the annals of jazz?  If it’s Clarence Williams, square in the footnotes.

Largely forgotten to everyone except twenties aficionados and record collectors and occasionally mentioned for bringing Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet together for their gladiatorial first encounter, Williams was born just outside New Orleans, touring by age twelve, ran successful publishing houses in New Orleans, Chicago and New York, accompanied and managed the likes of Bessie Smith and Fats Waller and composed (or at least collected royalties for) early jazz standards such “Royal Garden Blues,” “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” and “T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do.”

Most histories treat Williams as a better businessman than musician, glossing over the hundred or so recordings he made under his own name for various labels throughout the twenties and early thirties.  Williams was a competent pianist and at best a charming singer, yet despite never being a great performer he still created some of the most unique jazz of the prewar era.

The best Williams sides combine the relaxed, airy beat of his hometown with simple but effective arrangements influenced by  Northern dance bands.  “Close Fit Blues” couples unsung hero Ed Allen’s cornet and Cyrus St. Clair’s tuba commentary with a pastoral clarinet duet from Fletcher Henderson‘s star sidemen Buster Bailey and Coleman Hawkins:

“Breeze” strikes a similarly pacific mood, starting with trombonist Ed Cuffee barking against a limpid sax trio.  It combines theme and variation at the same time, followed by Williams’ tender singing [just click the arrow to play]:


When Williams turns up the heat, as for example on “Sweet Emmalina,” it’s with a broad, gentle but driving energy, far removed from the jerky intensity of many other bands of the time and with St. Clair’s slap tonguing, on tuba, as an added treat timbral effect [just click on the song title to listen]:

Sweet Emmalina

Williams also knew when to just let soloists stretch out.  “Sweet Emmalina” and “Dreaming the Hours Away” forego snappy arranged introductions and simply let Bailey cut loose, with an especially finger-busting solo on “Dreaming.”  Later on, Hawkins sweats out a stabbing, metallic solo before the two reeds provide clarinet and sax riffs that make Williams’ little band sound much larger.  Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington weren’t the only bandleaders experimenting with textures around this time:

Dreaming The Hours Away

Williams is best known for the Armstrong/Bechet recordings,  but he usually employed the same core of imaginative, now obscure players in addition to occasional guests from big name bands.  Allen was one of the most imaginative pre-Armstrong hornmen.  On “I’ve Found A New Baby” with a Williams washboard group, the cornetist’s scorching lead and rhythmically liberated lines make his historical neglect seem all the more surprising:

I’ve Found A New Baby

Reedman Albert Soccaras also appears on several Williams’ sides, including hot flute solos like the one on “Have You Ever Felt That Way” predating Herbie Mann by a few decades:


As for Williams’ own piano, he provided solid harmonies and steady, bumping rhythm underneath it all.  The piano rolls and solos he recorded may never have given his client and collaborator James P. Johnson anything to worry about, but Williams’ real instrument was his ear.

For a faithful but utterly individual tribute to Williams, check out the Hot Antic Jazz Band at the Whitley Bay Jazz Festival, captured by Elin Smith and posted on Michael Steinman’s (excellent) blog here.

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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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Jazz Where It Belongs: Strange, Derivative and Monochromatic

Given Jazz Age assumptions about which bands were supposed to play what, and the frequency of jazz-tinged instrumentals in Joe Candullo‘s discography, it’s remarkable that  the violinist and bandleader was able to record quite a bit of music other bands were simply expected to play. The same ratio of hot to sweet music was the norm for Duke Ellington, Bennie Moten or Charlie Johnson.

Occasionally double standards come in handy. Had the Candullo band’s family trees or repertoire been different, they might just be another jazz band, or another (most likely forgotten) dance orchestra. Luckily, the “novelty” of these players’ backgrounds draws attention to real musical discoveries. The tight ensemble, instrumental variety and tense but energetic beat on “Black Bottom” reveal some distinct archaic pop:

Candullo added his own sound to several tunes that Moten, Fletcher Henderson and King Oliver also recorded. Doc Cooke‘s band, featuring the pugilistic Freddie Keppard on cornet, gave “Brown Sugar” a raucous, red-hot treatment, while Candullo’s version simmers the themes and instrumental textures into a warmer feel [follow the link to listen]:

http://www.dailymotion.com/embed/video/xnowsu
Joe Candullo & His Everglades Orchestra – Brown… by kspm0220s

Historian and collector Mark Berresford notes that “why and how Candullo and his men got to record such material is a mystery.” By the Swing era, the sounds of Harlem, New Orleans, Kansas City and other territories were well known in popular music. Yet saxophonist and bandleader Charlie Barnet‘s unabashed admiration for Ellington, Henderson and Count Basie would earn him a reputation as a derivative stylist, a second-rate soloist and another pop musician getting rich off of others’ creativity.  Assuming that musicians can play great music without innovating, Barnet left behind plenty of upbeat, passionate music.  It’s fairly obvious (and not just from the titles) where performances such as “The Duke’s Idea”

and “The Count’s Idea”

come from, but the emulation is sincere, flattering and far from an exact duplicate of its source material. Barnet was clearly a student of Coleman Hawkins’ tenor and Johnny Hodges’ alto, but does that make his own sax any less swinging and assured? He was also one of the few big band leaders to frequently incorporate the soprano saxophone. It adds a shimmering lead and tongue-in-cheek blues statements to “Pompton Turnpike”:

Thank goodness audiences and critics have moved beyond evaluation by association: just ask Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Leontyne Price, Eminem, Karmin…

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It Runs in the Music

He Just Never Heard "West End Blues"

The question, “How did you come up with a blog about twenties jazz and eighteenth century classical music?” comes up from time to time and it’s easy to reply, “I write about the music I love.” Yet “Why those two things?” is even easier to answer: because the human body can only run for so long.

Most runners will agree that few drugs can compete with a “runner’s high,” when adrenaline, or endorphins, or perhaps mania laced with pixie dust shoots a cocktail of exhilaration and calm through your veins. Getting to that point requires self-restraint to pace oneself and avoid exhaustion, with the stamina to push right into euphoria and weightlessness. Yet once there, concepts such as “time,” “distance,” “oxygen,” even “surroundings” and especially “destination” disappear: it’s all about the moment, and momentum. “Ride” stops being a verb and becomes an end in itself.

It’s also a frustrating fix because unlike many other intoxicants, there’s never enough money or free time to keep getting high. Even marathoners need to stop, and for the rest of us a “runner’s high” is only possible with a runner’s knees, lungs and hearts.  I love the feeling, but getting it is not easy.

The closest thing I’ve encountered while sitting still usually comes from the bell of an instrument or a vocalist’s lips.  It goes by many names, such as coloratura, ad-libbing, vocalise, taking a Boston, noodles, etc. but it’s no accident that it’s often called a “run”: nothing as regular as a melody or a riff, but a zig-zagging aural racetrack, those long, heavily ornamented lines loved by early jazz soloists and Baroque/early Classical composers alike.  Graun’s aria “Tra le procelle assorto” from his opera Cleopatra e Cesare (and sung with ravishing velocity by soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian):

and Jabbo Smith‘s Rhythm Aces burning through “Jazz Battle”:

both resemble athletic events, something we witness and find exciting even if we’ll never be able to accomplish such feats.  They don’t always get stuck in our heads the way a good melody or catchy groove does, but musicians aren’t there to just give us something to hum while we’re waiting in line at the supermarket.

Then again, the sheer joy and abandon of Jimmy Dorsey arpeggiating the hell out of the introduction to “Buddy’s Habits” bears repeated listening, and who knows what one might be whistling after hearing it a dozen times:

Like a good runner’s high, speed is a frequent but not necessary catalyst.  Whether its soprano Anna Bonitatibus winding her way through Haydn’s pastoral lament in his opera La Fedelta Premiata

or Coleman Hawkins’ legendary traversal of “Body and Soul”:

the high unfolds tenderly, more gradually but just as strongly.  These artists have more in common than powdered wigs and pomade may indicate.

Even Bach, that supreme melodist, brilliant harmonist and touching dramatist,  understood the power of a finger-splitting solo.  Musicologists can point out the subtleties and innovations of his violin sonatas, yet “on air” violinist Viktoria Mullova gives the impression of a a soloist stepping into the printed score like the right pair of sneakers, or some four-wheeled marvel of European engineering, and taking those roulades for a ride:

Perhaps More Divisive Than Any Political Reference On This Blog

It’s no surprise these moments are uncomfortable, soporific or even cacophonous for most ears nursed on regularly recurring melodies.  That they’re often written off as  “exercises” just reinforces the point: What’s the difference between me running for the bus and Tom Brady running for a ball?  Training, style, grace, power and personality, (plus about a million admiring female fans).  The best music shows us the line between feet and feat.

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Glenn Miller Gets Down with His Bad Trombone Playing

"Y'know, I can PLAY this thing too!"

Despite the best efforts of movie soundtracks, wedding bands and geriatric marketing, it’s still possible to make out Glenn Miller’s name along the side of “In the Mood” as it gets beaten into the ground.  Miller will always have a place in pop purgatory courtesy of Joe Garland’s arrangement of an old riff tune (by Wingy Manone or Horace Henderson, depending on who you ask), as well other Swing Era anthems such as “A String of Pearls,” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” and a lot of songs that helped Americans get through World War II.  The Miller band’s smooth, safely swinging beat and glow-in-the-dark orchestrations earned their leader enormous fame and fortune in his day.  For contemporary listeners, the Miller sound continues to be synonymous with this period, despite the stubborn cries of ” Fletcher Henderson!  Duke Ellington!  [and even] Benny Goodman!” from incensed critics.

It turns out that star bandleader, arranger and pop icon Glenn Miller used to be young trombonist Alton Glenn Miller, fresh off the train from Iowa and gigging with Ben Pollack, Red Nichols and various pickup groups around New York City.  Miller largely put aside the trombone during his hit parade years, and historians and listeners have dismissed his playing as either technically superfluous but cold, or as some second-rate dixieland knockoff.  Yet a few recordings and some slightly lowered expectations (given the high bar set by some of his con-tem-po-rar-ies) reveal an exciting, direct soloist simply having a good time.

Here’s Miller with brief, aggressive commentary to finish out the final chorus on “He’s the Last Word” with Ben Pollack’s band.  You can skip ahead to Miller’s solo (at 2:53), but you’d be missing out on some harmonic exploration from seventeen year old Benny Goodman and Pollack’s drums backing Fud Livingston’s snappy chart (as well as some nostalgically smutty lyrics from the female vocalists):

Critics usually discuss “Hello, Lola” strictly as an example of sax innovator Coleman Hawkins’ developing style.  It’s also one of the earliest “mixed dates” that incorporated both black and white players.  Yet between Hawkins’ towering musico-historical presence and the social impact of hearing Hawkins and bassist Pops Foster break barriers alongside Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Condon and Gene Krupa, Miller’s blistering trombone (at 2:42) often gets lost in the mix.  Miller at least deserves credit for stepping onto the end of Hawkins’ agitated chorus and making it out of the studio alive:

Ten years and a lot more limelight later, Miller’s style hadn’t changed much.  He recalls his leaner days (and perhaps hotter nights) with a similarly punchy, straightforward solo on “Pagan Love Song” with his own band:

Miller’s trombone playing will never inspire any schools, but he still left behind some derivatively driving playing.  Everyone has to start somewhere.  Best of all, and unlike his arrangements, Miller’s trombone will never try to sell us life insurance or get Aunt Emma on the dance floor.

For more of Miller and company’s jazz bona fides, check out the CD “The Spirit is Willing,” still available from various sellers at even more varying prices.  In the meantime, and just to show there’s no hard feelings against Miller’s honey-drenched style, here’s a tune at least one archaic pop-loving blogger danced to on his wedding day:

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In Praise of Dead Ends

Hawkins. Young. George Johnson.

Don’t worry if that last name doesn’t sound familiar, or if it sticks out when saddled next to the two most influential saxophonists in jazz history.

George Johnson is best (and perhaps only) known for the tenor sax buried behind layers of youthfully busy polyphony and 78rpm static on Bix Beiderbecke‘s first recordings with the Wolverines in 1924.  If not for the influential cornetist’s presence, these fifteen sides would be downplayed as period pop ephemera, the work of rambunctious, untrained kids, unworthy of the continuous remastering and reissue they receive to this day.  If Johnson’s moaning behind Beiderbecke on “Tiger Rag” and “Royal Garden Blues,” or his straight-laced lead and wooden tone on two takes of “Susie” (at about 0:26 in the following clip) didn’t generate any imitators, his playing is all the more charming because it’s such a singular sound:

The only thing jazz may love more than hearing its saxophone royalty is writing their family trees.  Many jazz histories outline a teleology of influences leading inexorably to jazz modernity: Hawkins begat Webster and Berry, who begat Byas, who begat Rollins, who begat Coltrane…and Trumbauer begat Young, who begat Parker, who begat everyone…Earlier artists are just that: musicians who were around earlier than the mold musicians we all know.  Just like a Model A or blunderbuss, they might be interesting historical figures but somehow they’re not a fully “developed” product.

Don’t take my word for it, just listen to Dan Morgenstern discussing the intrinsic beauties of Duke Ellington‘s early recordings:

Jazz history, with its obsession for developmental theories, tends to handle music with hindsight and has categorized most pre-1940 Ellingtonia as “leading up to” the indisputable plateau of ‘Ko-Ko,’ ‘Main Stem,’ etc…what strikes me most forcibly upon rehearing [Ellington's recordings from the twenties]…is how much each individual piece has to offer just in itself…it is the greatest possible tribute to the genius of Ellington and his famous men that this should be so, for after all, at each given moment of playing, they were making music and not writing chapters n the history of jazz.

For further perspective from another source wiser than this blogger, and regarding a figure who never had the fortune (or PR) to found a lineage, Michael Steinman offers his thoughts on neglected saxophonist Boyce Brown…

The critic Dave Dexter, Jr. got excited about these recordings, hearing [Brown's] volatile style as a precursor of Charlie Parker.  I don’t find that assessment valuable (must all roads in jazz lead to a Greater Master?) preferring to hear Boyce as someone whose phrases had a certain winding urgency, his notes poised on the front end of the beat.  More than a fledgling bopper, Boyce seems to have deeply understood the impulsive leaping playing of 1927 Louis [Armstrong] and Frank Teschemacher.  Hal Smith calls him “the hottest alto saxophonist in jazz.”

Steinman’s language is as insightful as his ideas: all great players have a “deep understanding” of their peers and forefathers, but understanding ain’t imitation, or for that matter explanation.

Players like George Johnson and Boyce Brown, or Buster Bailey, Don Murray, Leonard Davis, Cyrus St. Clair and many others are a blessing, because they force the listener to be just that, a listening audience, receptive to what they’ve never heard and might never hear again, rather than a catalog of sounds and inspirations heard elsewhere.  Play it again, George…

The Wolverines, with George Johnson Standing Third from the Left

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