Tag Archives: Tiger Rag

A Very Brief History of Jazz via “Tiger Rag”

everynote.comThis list is more stylistic than chronological, and certainly less than comprehensive, but hopefully it still provides a fair overview of the music’s development.  At the very least it shows that good musicians never play “the same old tune.”

Note: The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz defines a “contrafact” as “a melody built upon the chord progression of another piece (after contrafactum, in medieval and Renaissance music).”



From there the tiger’s trail turns cold, but readers are encouraged to share examples  of “Tiger Fusion, Tiger Latin, Tiger Atonal, Tiger Hip Hop” or their own favorite exploration of the tune.

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Benny Carter Tames The Tiger

Licking one’s wounds after mixing up a pair of “Tigers” is as good a reason as any to listen to Benny Carter. Here’s the legendary multi-instrumentalist, arranger, composer, bandleader and educator taking on “Tiger Rag” [just click the link below to listen, and thank Yves Francois for sharing]:

“Tiger Rag,” Benny Carter And His Swing Quartet: Benny Carter, alto sax and trumpet; Gene Rodgers, piano; Bernard Addison, guitar; Wally Morris, bass; George Elrick, drums. Recorded June 20, 1936 in London.

Gene Rodgers in the 1947 film, “Shoot to Kill.”

Carter treats the ubiquitous standard as a vehicle for his big, slick tenor sax, ending with an Armstrong-inspired coda on trumpet. He obviously has chops but they’re heard in the effortless delivery of ornate, well-constructed lines rather than showy licks or high notes. He doesn’t kill the “Tiger” so much as play with it. The rhythm section swings with gritty momentum and each member gets to solo. Gene Rodgers’ piano and Wally Morris’ tasteful slaps stand out for this blogger.

Carter is not a personal favorite as far as players (hence the mix-up) but his creativity and technique are undeniable. His eight decade career and his winning the esteem of everyone from Duke Ellington to Miles Davis aren’t just coincidences. Still, it’s shame there aren’t more “Tigers” with just soloist and rhythm section from this era; it would be interesting to hear what Ben Whitted, Babe Russin or others players without Carter’s historical street cred would have to say in such a setting.

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Shut My Mouth and Open My Ears!

Several months ago I posted an electrifying recording of “Tiger Rag,” with a soloist making this warhorse their own on both clarinet and alto saxophone. It was taken off of a four-CD import set under Benny Carter’s name, listing Carter on both instruments from a 1936 session in London. I confirmed that Carter did record “Tiger Rag” with a group called the “Swing Quartet” in that setting via my own discographical oracle. Since I’m not very familiar with Carter’s work (I’m sorry to say he’s not one of my favorite musicians to listen to) and I was so bowled over by the performance, I took the liner notes at their word.

Thanks to a comment by jazz journalist/photographer Ed Berger, as well as input by some experienced listeners on the internet, I’ve come to learn that it’s in fact Jimmy Dorsey, on a Spike Hughes-led date from 1930 in London, strutting his stuff through those two jaw-dropping choruses. I’m happy to hear Dorsey anytime, and I probably should have recognized his rippling clarinet from the start!

Here’s the music once more:


My sincere apologies for this error, but I know the music will still sound good.

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Benny Carter Kills That Tiger

Corrected November 24, 2012 (see postscript).

Skip the context!  The promoter or steamliner that brought Benny Carter Jimmy Dorsey to London on June 20, 1936 July 15, 1930 will never be as compelling as what he recorded that day [just click play below]:


CarterDorsey’s choice of material is yet another detail: he rides “Tiger Rag” through several choruses of swinging, thoroughly virtuosic deconstruction, leaving just a teasing elision of the original melody to start his solo.  One second in and it’s pure Carter Dorsey throughout.

First on clarinet, he adds his own lines over the all-too-familiar stop-time and call and response sections.  Two breaks show off a piping upper register [at 0:34 in the above clip], followed by a burbling chalumeau [at 0:38].  Rapid octaves, a sly fadeout and a drum fill then segue into CarterDorsey’s alto saxophone.  Not content playing two instruments, he also plays two saxophonists, starting with his own luxuriant tone and buttery phrasing, then grafting them onto a rendition of Jimmy Dorsey’s his own “Tiger Rag” variation to finish the side.

One player, two horns, and it’s riveting from start to finish.  The music is simply “Benny Carter. whoever happens to be blowing this old tune to bits, which happens to be “Jimmy Dorsey” here.  The record and chord changes just happen to be labelled differently.

Yup, He Blew Great Trumpet Too

Though Carter did play magnificently, he’s not this writer’s cup of tea and therefore not a player that’s very familiar to him, hence the above corrections.  For more information, please see 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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The Sound and the Fury: Jazz on Record Turn 95

Sundays are normally devoted to boosting for Vivaldi, but today marks a very special anniversary.

Ninety-five years ago today, five musicians from New Orleans walked into a Victor Talking Machine Company studio on West 38th Street in New York City to record in the style they grew up playing back home.  Their recording of “Livery Stable Blues” was like nothing else heard on record: its raucous collective ensembles, barnyard onomatopoeia, exuberant (almost sexual) rhythms and sense of abandon brought something entirely new to the popular music scene:

If historical analysis were able to stop there, it would be left with important but uncontroversial facts.  Yet like so many other debates, the intervention of a four-letter word has made all the difference.

The particular term used in the group’s name and in the title of the second tune cut that day, the brassy dance number “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step,” would be forever associated with a new movement in American music.  The Original Dixieland Jass Band, later renamed Original Dixieland Jazz Band, would come to be credited, accused, denied and reviled as the creators of the first “jazz” record.

An excerpt from Scott Yanow’s description of the ODJB on the All Music Guide sums up the issues surrounding the group:

They were not the first group to ever play jazz…nor was this White quintet necessarily the best band of the time, but during 1917-1923 (particularly in their earliest years) they did a great deal to popularize jazz.

Yanow’s distinction of the ODJB as a popularizer for some style of music associated with “jazz” is key.  The first jazz record is obviously not the same thing as the first jazz performance, and the bearer of that latter honor has been lost to time (with possibilities including mysterious, legendary and unrecorded cornetist Buddy Bolden and the self-nominated Jelly Roll Morton).  Yet a record, literally a recoded document, and especially one as popular as that of “Livery Stable Blues,” has a cultural significance beyond musicological origins.  The ODJB would become the introduction to “jazz,” and whatever that word meant, for millions of Americans and listeners across the world.

Yet the AMG entry also slips in the facts and ideas that have made that introduction so controversial.  For starters, there’s the ODJB’s music.  Their inaugural recordings unveil a somewhat uptight, “zany” surface that might seem hokey today (and which reveals the origins of “dixieland” as a term for corny, cliché, ersatz jazz).  Part of this feel is due to Victor’s insistence on using fast tempos to squeeze as many choruses onto one side of a 78 as possible.  As Richard M. Sudhalter points out in his seminal Lost Chords, other ODJB records feature more lyrical textures and careful dynamics.  Contemporary technology is also an obstacle to the ODJB’s legacy: even the best restorations are unable to overcome the acoustic recording technique’s favoring Larry Shields’ clarinet, which obscures Nick LaRocca’s cornet lead and effectually obliterates pianist Henry Ragas’ harmonic and rhythmic underpinning.

Yet the elephant in the room for nearly a century has been another little word in the AMG entry.  A White group cut what is considered the first recorded example of a style generally accepted as originating and developing in African-American communities.  Suffice it to say that the ODJB’s cultural associations and subsequent popularity have not sat well with many commentators.  At best, these records are described as a hastily assembled product for mass consumption.  They are often dismissed as the mockery of a communal art form by an opportunistic cultural elite, and rarely discussed as a perhaps dated yet sincere artistic expression.

Freddie Keppard, and What Might Have Been...

The issue of whether the group actually improvised might be solved in the multiple takes that reveal the same licks, yet this phenomenon is found on many other recordings by groups of all backgrounds up through the Swing Era (with clarinetist Larry Shields a tried and true “faker” who couldn’t read music).  Cornetist Nick LaRocca’s embittered claims of having “invented” jazz and his offensive racial commentary haven’t helped the group’s legacy.  The fact that African American cornet firebrand Freddie Keppard had previously refused the opportunity to record is seen as either historical accident, or bitter irony.  As for whether these records can be considered the first “jazz” on record, the line between context and content remains blurry.  Plus, there’s always the “jazzy” elements of earlier records contending for that title.

Without rehashing musicological arguments or the cultural issues embedded in jazz and therefore American history (a subject best left to researchers with the time, resources and objectivity to guide the conversation), the ODJB’s record allowed them a huge degree of success based on the term “jazz.”  That success allowed other “jazz” and jazz (maybe even a few Jazz), groups to enter the public conscience and impact the course of American music.  “Tiger Rag,” “Singin’ the Blues,” “Margie” and other numbers from the ODJB book still provide fertile ground for jazz improvisation, and their music still garners admirers as well as detractors.

The only absolute certainty is that close to a century ago, a quintet recorded two songs.  In the wake of that fact, all we are left with is our reactions and the sound of those records.   It’s important to enjoy one without overstating the other.

"Okay Guys, Let's Make One of the Most Controversial Records of All Time! A One, A Two..."

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Vince Giordano, Josh Duffee, Fletcher Henderson and Jean Goldkette: Quadruple Threat, All At BixFest

The Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival honors the brilliant, short-lived cornetist with four days of music, memorabilia, lectures and more music in Beiderbecke’s hometown of Davenport, IA.  Fans have posted a lot of great footage from this year’s festival online, but clips from the “battle” between Vince Giordano and Josh Duffee’s bands capture something truly special from an already unique gathering.

This double bill was inspired by a legendary battle of the bands on October 13, 1926, between Fletcher Henderson’s “home team” at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, and Jean Goldkette’s Detroit-based orchestra.  Contemporary musicians knew this was a gladiatorial occurrence, with Goldkette’s group of “tight assed white boys” and “hicks from the sticks” soundly whooping the venerated Henderson orchestra.

At Bix Bash on August 6, 2011, Vince Giordano’s New York based Nighthawks were the guests in town to play the Henderson book, with Duffee’s group on home turf in the Midwest playing the Goldkette charts. Just hearing these arrangements live and liberated from the constraints of twenties recordings techniques is an event. While it shouldn’t matter how old the charts are, in the age of disposable pop stars and last year’s songs making it onto the oldies station, their age makes this performance all the more miraculous.

Aside from the geographic reversal and the more playful nature of this “battle,” as soon as the Nighthawks light into “St. Louis Shuffle,” it’s obvious that the Roseland throw down is a source of inspiration, rather than recreation:

Giordano is a powerhouse player and erudite musician who illuminates gaps on record with historical knowledge and attention to period detail that are second to none.  Yet the tone, imagination and drive of the Nighthawks are entirely sui generis.  The Nighthawks also forego their usual practice of playing solos from original recordings; the soloists here are creating in the moment.

Recording techniques in the twenties prevent us from knowing what Kaiser Marshall’s full drum kit sounded like. Arnie Kinsella’s rolling snares on “Shanghai Shuffle” are no doubt historically informed, but more importantly they just get this band moving:

Josh Duffee’s band spends more time with the original solos on record, yet none of his guys or gals (another important difference with the original battle)  sacrifice their voice.  Jazz, “Jazz,” or “jass” has always been about making even a single note all one’s own.  It can be as subtle as the saxophonist playing Frankie Trumbauer’s original lines a touch more staccato, or the band accenting sections that were just an afterthought on the original recording of “Proud of a Baby Like You”:

On “Tiger Rag,” there is no recorded legacy to admire or compare.  Goldkette’s arrangement was never recorded (or at least never survived the judgment of a conservative A&R man).  The notes on the page are just that, aching for interpretation.  Duffee and his band respond with a double-barreled reading, with the leader’s splashing cymbals prominent behind roaring trombone, (sadly inaudible) banjo, and a mirthful chase between cornet and saxophone:

Scroll ahead to 5:35 for Duffee’s “Tiger Rag”

Musicians from the twenties recorded “Tiger Rag” and scores of contrafacts based off of its chord changes.  Duffee and his sidemen could have easily resorted to reusing these solos (though they do interpolate Jimmy Hartwell’s jittery clarinet chorus from Beiderbecke’s recording with the Wolverines).  Without hearing every single cover of “Tiger Rag” from the period, the Duffee band simply sound like they’re improvising.  Even if they’re not, that sense of spontaneity and wild abandon is the whole point.

People don’t cross miles or decades for slavish imitation.  Just ask the generations of listeners in the audience or across the Internet, or Bixophile Flemming Thorbye, who travelled from his native Denmark to shoot this footage.  All four bands on stage, Henderson, Goldkette, Giordano and Duffee, own this music as a communal experience.  Things like time, distance or death don’t stop artists from talking.

Special thanks to Flemming Thorbye and “Jazzman Joe” for posting these clips and so much other wonderful jazz on their YouTube channels.

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Spelunking: Bix, Red and The Broadway Bellhops

Song titles such “Oh You Lulu Belle,”  “I Found A Round About Way To Heaven” or “There’s A Cradle In Caroline” don’t exactly scream “excitement” from the back of Vintage Music Productions’ CD of the Broadway Bellhops  (a similarly vanilla sounding name).  Even the double entendres of “Don’t Take That Black Bottom Away” or “Tonight’s My Night With Baby” evidence commercial dates, rather than spontaneous, artist-motivated jazz.  Yet after picking this disc up on a recent pilgrimage to J&R, I was still eager to fly home and discover what might pop out from underneath all this corn.   The cover’s promise of “Bix Beiderbecke, Red Nichols, Miff Mole and More” kept me on the edge of my seat, track listings aside.

Early jazz collectors accept the fact that their heroes were more likely to record popular fare, often with well-rehearsed dance bands, than to cut loose in the studio over “Tiger Rag,” “Royal Garden Blues” or other jazz warhorses.  We keep coming back for what those heroes accomplish with (or in spite of) the songs or bands.

For example, both the title and forgettable melody of “There Ain’t No Land Like Dixieland” portend an innocuous listening experience.  Thank goodness for Joe Venuti’s violin making a hot, bluesy mockery of the tune!  His between the beat phrasing makes the jerky interlude and bellowing vocalist that follow almost bearable, until they completely fade from memory next to Beiderbecke’s lyrical solo.  He squeezes and spikes the tune with unique melodic and harmonic nuances, while never completely throwing the tune away.  By contrast, saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer chooses abstraction rather than augmentation, paring the melody down to the bare essentials, making a ballet out of this square dance.

Venuti, Beiderbecke, Trumbauer and even journeyman trombonist Bill Rank put the arrangement and singer on “Dixieland” miles beside the point.  It’s similarly worth putting up with the  unimaginative score of “I Ain’t That Kind of Baby” to hear Red Nichols turns on the snark with some sarcastic scoops and bends, or sit through the plodding rhythm of “Don’t Take That Black Bottom Away” to hear the horns emerge with a tight, witty passage (not unlike the concertino soloists emerging from the orchestra in a concerto grosso).

Red Nichols & His Orchestra, 1933

Of course recordings such as “Collette” are pure market fodder.  It’s a shame that such a pretty title receives a squeezebox melody and vertical arrangement (while apparently getting recorded underwater with a frog vocalist’s imitation of Mario Lanza); on the other hand, perhaps the musicians ate a good lunch with that session’s paycheck.

Early jazz lovers are also used to bumping into pure, dated banality.  Yet even just a few bars of Beiderbecke’s spirit overcoming the collective, or Joe Tarto’s tuba pushing the beat, makes those encounters worthwhile.  Diamonds aren’t valuable because they fall from the sky or get plucked out of flowerbeds; they’re mined, and coal often makes them seem more brilliant.

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