One of the joys as well as frustrations of listening to early jazz is discovering styles or “schools” that were absorbed into others, or just closed down before enrollment got too high. “No one plays like that anymore…” may seem like a challenge waiting to be met, inviting some musicologist to illustrate the unacknowledged influence of an obscure player or a seasoned professional to shout that they’ve listened to that musician for decades…unless you’re referring to Bill Moore or Woody Walder. Some musical styles simply go the way of clothing styles.
The idea of jazz as a perennially forward-thinking, relentlessly hip music seems to go back to the music’s origins. Playing in an old-fashioned manner or even liking the wrong band was a real source of embarrassment, as demonstrated by a young Bud Freeman actually apologizing for playing like Jack Pettis. “Pardon me for playing collegiate, that Northwestern style,” he allegedly said to another musician, “but what can you do on a tenor sax?” Coleman Hawkins would soon answer Freeman, but how did those poor saxophonists fare until then?
Richard Sudhalter explains that the “Chicago school of tenor, Northwestern style” or “playing collegiate” was the light-toned style popularized by Jack Pettis. Pettis is now known primarily among record collectors and early jazz aficionados, but in his time he was a groundbreaking jazz musician. David Garrick provides extensive details about Pettis’s life and professional career on his website, yet the origins of Pettis’s style are still up for speculation. Squirrel Ashcraft said that Pettis taught himself to play saxophone between work in a government office. The rest is up for speculation. However Pettis did it, he earned himself a seat with the legendary New Orleans Rhythm Kings. His saxophone fits in well with the standard frontline of trumpet, trombone and clarinet, often adding a middle register harmony for the trumpet or sailing into the upper register without crashing into Leon Roppolo’s clarinet.
Pettis would go on to become a star soloist with Ben Bernie’s popular dance orchestra, playing what many consider the first saxophone solo on film with Bernie as well as leading several of his own sessions.
Sudhalter describes the Pettis style as having a light sound and a loping beat, generating momentum through chains of eighth notes. It was far from the wail of Bud Freeman’s other early Chicago saxophone hero, Paul Biese. Pettis also took a vastly different approach from Chicago bandleader’s Isham Jones dark timbre and tendency to stick close to the melody with occasional embellishment. Judging by Bill Richards’s solos on “Choo Choo Blues, She’s A Mean Job” and other sides with Frank Westphal’s popular Chicago band, this plummy, huffing style seems to have been yet another approach to the instrument. Trumpeter Paul Mares described “Chicago style” as “composed of, conventionally, four pieces: piano, drums, banjo, and sax. The sax was played like Ted Lewis plays clarinet and the rhythm beat a tired, heavy, pounding that threatened to splinter the tavern floor. Boy, it was terrible…” So much for the consistency of labels!
As an older man, Freeman seems far more deferential to Pettis and his own Chicago style. His autobiography recalls Pettis as “the first swinging tenor player I ever heard” and the “first guy to become a professional success with that style” as well as “the king of that style.” Yet he needn’t have felt so embarrassed in the first place: Sudhalter points out that the Pettis school was the dominant style among white saxophonists of the early twenties. Several jazz records from that era bear that description out. George Johnson’s solo on “Copenhagen” with The Wolverines is perhaps the most well-known example:
Johnson’s solo would become part of this composition, eventually being transcribed into the sheet music, but other recordings of the tune include saxophonists clearly under Johnson’s spell and by extension the Northwestern style. These include an unnamed tenor soloist with Al Turk as well as Floyd Townes with Elmer Schoebel:
Interestingly enough, Johnson uses a lusher tone for the straight melody reading on “Susie” while swinging out, Northwestern style, towards the end of his solo on “I Need Some Pettin’” and the breaks on “Jazz Me Blues.”
As Sudhalter points out, the Northwestern players built on the arpeggiated figures and legato attack of the clarinet while adding the creamy tone and vibrato of the alto saxophone. The style was something of a hybrid. Clarinetist and historian Eric Seddon points out how saxophones “benefit from knotty phrases which snake and double back on themselves” while the clarinet’s larger range and timbre open up the possibilities of arpeggios. In other words, the two instruments are just that: different instruments lending themselves to distinct technical/expressive routes. Hawkins’s force of musical personality on saxophone as well as his sheer technical confidence would have impressed regardless of instrument. Yet it must have been a revelation for young saxophonists to hear such an idiomatic style for their instrument. Hawkins and other players explored how to play the saxophone without making it sound like a large brass clarinet, a more agile trumpet, a cello, etc.
At the same time, Pettis’s slippery, agitated style was still just plain hot. These solos still resound with their own unique nervous energy, an intensity that characterizes the best jazz of this period (and which would fade in favor of smoother, more laid-back styles coming out of the south).
The use of vibrato as well as the busy vertical lines delineate this style from the sound that Frank Trumbauer and Lester Young would eventually bestow upon the jazz world. Pettis and disciples such as Bostonian Perley Breed may have played lighter but were anything but “cool.” Even at slower tempos, the notes seem to jitter in mid-air.
Perhaps the style caught on at college campuses due to its manic energy, an appropriate sound for the roaring twenties. All of those twenty-somethings probably thought they were far more advanced than Biese and Jones. So much for feeling embarrassed!
Twenties modernist Fud Livingston sounds like he was influenced by Pettis, albeit adding his own slightly acerbic tone and jagged phrasing:
When Livingston left Pollack’s band, Larry Binyon played in a similar yet somehow less busy style. Binyon received much less solo space than Livingston (due, in part, to the ascendancy of Goodman and Teagarden as the primary soloists). Maybe on record he didn’t have as much room to stretch out, or simply lacked the desire to do so. Either way, Binyon sounds closer to Pettis on “Whoopee Stomp” with Irving Mills and on the final bridge to “Little Rose Covered Shack” with Pollack. At other times Binyon plays with a more mellifluous society band sound. This type of musical chameleoning seemed to be all in a day’s work for these musicians, and its ubiquity makes it all the more remarkable.
Sudhalter notes Pettis’s influence as primarily a product of the early twenties. By the middle of the decade, Coleman Hawkins was a firmly established presence within the jazz community, the premier soloist with one of the Fletcher Henderson’s popular and critically admired band. By the time young Max Kaminsky told one of his bandmates that he was a fan of Perley Breed, the trumpeter described being “puzzled and a little hurt when he smiled at my answer.” Nobody wants to be old-hat, and things move pretty quickly in American music.
Thankfully, a few musicians didn’t seem to get the memo. So we have Don Murray’s excellent solo on “Blue River” with Jean Goldkette:
Almost a year later, Pettis himself receives an entire chorus to himself, starting out a dance record with an improvised solo on a pop tune recorded by the more commercially-oriented Bernie band. Pettis may have now been living in Hawkins’s world but he still had things to say on his own terms.
George Snurpus and Ralph Rudder, in their only recorded appearances, still sound like they are learning things from Pettis.
As late as 1944, Boomie Richman’s Lester Youngish bridge on Muggsy Spanier’s “Rosetta” has traces of the Pettis style:
So much for historical benchmarks!
Of course, parsing out influences and tracing styles isn’t a science (and who would want it to be that precise?) At the very least, the “Pettis style” is a helpful concept that opens up vestigial approaches to an instrument now virtually synonymous with “jazz” and a handful of definitive players. Before Hawkins, Young, Parker and Coltrane, there was Jack Pettis, and he played exciting music that influenced other musicians. What could be hipper than that?
Thanks to Sue Fischer for providing that Paul Mares quote!
The following grew from a pet project of taking occasional notes on and finding as much music as possible made by one of my favorite musicians, Don Murray. I had collected a lot of information from incredible resources such as Tom Lord’s online Jazz Discography, Johnson and Shirley’s American Dance Bands On Records And Film and Albert Haim’s Bixography web forum. Yet my ears can only take me so far, so I am sharing this discography to benefit from more experienced and/or sensitive ears than mine. It can be accessed online here.
I also want to emphasize that this is a personal project and therefore only reflects my own subjective i.e. imperfect tastes and reactions to these recordings. It has also been assembled over the years between instances of real life, so it’s admittedly not the most elegant or conventionally designed discography. Above all, I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies, misattributions or other purely unintentional mistakes and I look forward to correcting them.
So, if you know more about these recordings or (fingers crossed) know of other Don Murray recordings, “have at it.” Thanks!
I’m coming out of my permanent state of semi-retirement just to tell my ones of readers that they can show some support for their favorite jazz musicians, including a few from the music’s alleged formative years, by voting for the next inductees into Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Hall of Fame. You can make your selections through this link:
With the state of arts in this country, this may be the last one, so why not vote bigly now? I’m not sharing my selection(s) but here’s a hint:
Best of luck to all of the nominees (but especially the ones who used brass rather than string bass).
Thanks to Ralph A. Miriello for inspiring me to write my own list!
Harold Peterson tossing off some Larry Shields-inspired descant over The Southern Rag-A-Jazz Band:
Gene Fosdick chirping an introductory verse for his Hoosiers:
My hero Buster Bailey, with the unenviable job of subbing for Sidney Bechet alongside Louis Armstrong, on a Clarence Williams Blue Five date and getting a whole paraphrase chorus to himself:
Sidney Bechet’s pupil and Duke Ellington star Johnny Hodges, spare and declaratory with a Perry Bradford group:
Someone’s crisp, bouncy soprano peeking out from the ubiquitous Ben Selvin orchestra:
Baltimore-born and New York-based Percy Glascoe switching between clarinet and soprano, while playing both in a similarly agitated style, with Lem Fowler’s Jim-Dandies:
If you like this sort of thing, I wrote a little more about this group here and here. Moving right along…
Stump Evans and then the redoubtable Omer Simeon, respectively wailing and bluesy with King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators:
Boyd Atkins with Louis Armstrong and His Stompers:
Incidentally, Atkin’s soprano solo (as well as Joe Walker’s solo on baritone) always sounded just great alongside Armstrong and Earl Hines to me. Yet John Chilton’s description of it as merely “effective” left me slightly embarrassed by my own ears. So I finally felt vindicated by Mr. Miriello including Atkins between Sidney Bechet and Johnny Hodges on his list! There’s also…
Harlan Leonard putting down his lead alto with Bennie Moten’s band for some soprano boogie:
then some soprano hoedown:
The little-known but very talented Goof Moyer on his own record date and with just a rhythm section behind him, burning up Fletcher Henderson’s “The Stampede”:
I hope you enjoyed the music.
Addendum: Percussionist and eagle-eye/ear Hal Smith spotted that the above clip erroneously labeled a picture of Albert Nicholas as Omer Simeon. Here is a photograph of Mr. Simeon care of Michael Steinman’s outstanding blog:
Thanks, Hal and Michael!
Sometimes it’s hard to tell who is reading this blog, which questions bring readers to it or the types of communities it reaches in cyberspace. Occasionally, internet metadata doesn’t just answer my curiosity but actually inspires my hope:
I hope he/she/they found what they were looking for here. If I knew more people were interested in such topics, I’d just quit the day job and write full-time (paycheck be damned). Here’s some more smut-filled pop, this time from yestercentury:
Jazz from the twenties emphasized (but by no means exclusively relied upon) ensemble interplay and collective improvisation. The sound of a New Orleans frontline of trumpet, trombone and clarinet weaving in and out of one another is most commonly associated with this period/approach, but bands like Gene Fosdick’s Hoosiers obviously had other ideas in mind. This group recorded just ten sides, but they are models of ensemble-based, rhythmically intense, pre-Armstrong, Midwestern via East Coast jazz that unfurl a variety of ensemble textures out of standard dance band instrumentation.
In his (characteristically excellent) liner notes to a reissue on Retrieval, Mark Berresford explains that the Hoosiers’ first session included the band’s usual personnel. Joe Rose’s cornet is confident, and may have received the usual ample space given to that instrument at live gigs, yet on this session the saxophone section gets most of the attention. The way that the Hoosiers spotlight particular saxophones in addition to the section as a whole is particularly interesting. Novel but not merely novelty touches include the soprano sax lead with tenor sax harmony and the alto sax break folding into the full sax section on “One Night In June”:
The tenor lead with sax section counterlines on “Lost A Wonderful Gift” is a great example of split-section orchestration:
The Retrieval LP lists a sax section of Gene Fosdick on alto and soprano with an unknown tenor player, while Brian Rust’s Jazz Records 1917-34 lists an unknown alto and an unknown tenor alongside Fosdick. Back in 1959, Horst H. Lange, in his The Fabulous Fives, said the section consisted of Fosdick on soprano with John Costello on alto and Jimmy Lytell (!) on clarinet. Tom Lord’s online Jazz Discography currently notes Fosdick as the lone (!) reedman playing soprano and clarinet.
Whoever they are, as a concerted section these saxophonists play with a rich, vibrato-laden sound. The lead alto is encircled rather than simply underscored by the inner voices, resulting in a blended timbre rather than simply the highest note dominating the line. It may have been a conscious effort, the natural result of individual tones coming together or just a byproduct of Vocalion’s acoustic, but it makes for a unique color next to the hundreds of sax sections and trumpet leads on record at the time.
The band’s name reflected Gene Fosdick’s Indiana home, and for the remaining sessions Phil Napoleon of the New York-based Original Memphis Five takes over on trumpet. While it’s hard to parse out regional styles here, this union of Corn Belt and Big Apple further expanded the band’s sonic arsenal. Napoleon’s strong tone (as though made to play on acoustic records, to paraphrase one commenter) and rhythmic placement earn the trumpet more room from the outset on “You’ve Got To See Mama Ev’ry Night.” Yet the saxes are just as smooth and still get their say. The snap of Napoleon’s horn next to the saxes’ purr is another one of those possibly unintentional but effective touches. Passing the lead between solo tenor and solo alto, plus the soprano’s slap-tongue arpeggio tag ending, just add more colors to the reed prism:
Berresford singles out the remarkable “drive” established by musicians who had likely not played together before. The sax section verse, for example, has a sheen, cohesion and danceable phrasing worthy of admiration. The hard-driving rhythm section punches out a joyously vertical, decidedly un-New Orleanian beat that pushes and pulls at the cross-voicings on top. Napoleon’s OM5 colleague, the stalwart Frank Signorelli, is likely contributing to the groove. The banjoist also deserves praise.
The third of the four Hoosiers sessions features a more common trumpet/trombone/clarinet configuration, as interpreted by players from outside of the Crescent City. Every frontline is a welcome opportunity to hear singular voices interacting with one another, but experiments with reeds combinations such as the baritone sax lead with trumpet obbligato on “Peggy” present other possibilities for collective improvisation:
[No clips online, sorry!]
The tenor on “’Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” resembles a bassoon or cello fashioning counterpoint under the solo soprano lead. It shows more influence from Bach rather than the blues but is just as stirring, and reminds of the wide variety of influences that jazz musicians continue to draw upon:
“Apple Sauce,” with a soprano seeming to embellish the section from inside rather than on top of the harmonies, sounds like some of the heterophonic reed duos of Black bands such as those of Clarence Williams or Fletcher Henderson. Subterranean baritone rumbles answering Napoleon’s cornet create an exercise in timbral extremes:
[No clips for this recording, but more music after this commercial message:]
By the final session, with Napoleon’s frequent partner in the OM5 Miff Mole on trombone, the New Orleans-style via New York City frontline dominates, yet the tenor and clarinet duet on “Farewell Blues” is another cleanly executed, clever touch:
The sound of a single tenor sax (likely Dudley Fosdick according to the Retrieval LP) chugging over some red hot syncopated percussion on “Railroad Man” excites both for its verve as well as the sound of a single horn over rhythm section during this ensemble-dominated period:
Napoleon’s trumpet dominates (and who’s complaining?) The Hoosiers’ last recorded side, “Aunt Hagar’s Blues,” further catalyzed by low-register clarinet, a moaning sax thickening the instrumental tapestry in the background and a stomping pendulum of swing:
Gene Fosdick’s Hoosiers earned just four recording sessions that spanned a mere six months. In addition to discographical sightings, biographical information for him is also sparse, with far more attention paid to his brother, the mellophonist and frequent Red Nichols associate Dudley Fosdick (an unusual example of a mellophonist getting more attention than a saxophonist). Yet it’s doubtful that personal details could provide a clue into what made these sides click musically. Whoever Gene Fosdick was, he and/or his band knew how to squeeze a lot of interest out of supposedly conventional instrumentation. Their music, what little they left to posterity, was plenty hot and really smart.
I’m not sure if this Fosdick is related to the above, but he still somehow remains worthy of mention:
Plagiarism is all over the headlines this minute yet there’s only one potential piece of piracy we need to close the books on.
Compare “Tozo,” recorded on January 21, 1927 by Fletcher Henderson’s band and composed by Henderson with lyricist M. Cowdery:
and “Bozo,” an Edward Hite tune recorded in November 1928 by Clarence Williams and His Orchestra:
Sing or hum the ballad of the Hottentot sheikh along with Ed Cuffee’s slow, slack opening trombone on the second title: don’t these two tunes sound alike? Don’t the chord changes, at the very least, sound very similar? Did Hite pilfer Henderson (or whoever)’s work? Was he teasing at it by rhyming his composition with the title of the purloined stomp? Or did Clarence Williams just think it would complement a tune christened “Bimbo” at the same record session?
This uncertainty isn’t going away anytime soon. Let’s get to the bottom of this, people.
I don’t usually celebrate jazz birthdays. Then again, Buster Bailey would have turned 114 today, and there is “Log Cabin Blues,” featuring Bailey with Clarence Williams’s Washboard Five:
He’s witty in response to Ed Allen’s cornet, pensive in solo and tasteful in his obbligato around Allen’s lead in the last choruses. Throughout, he crafts in earthy scoops, baroque runs, brilliant execution and a sense of nervous animation: every note seems to spiral in place, every run pushes at the beat, not quite like Bailey is fighting the ground rhythm but more like he’s teasing it. Clarence Williams’s band, with Allen, tubaist Cyrus St. Clair, percussionist Floyd Casey and Williams’s piano and spare but smart arrangements, always makes for glorious jazz.
That’s all in a little over three minutes! I guess a little recognition is okay. Happy birthday to the late Buster Bailey.
Better researchers than I might find out what or who led to Ken Moyer receiving the nickname “Goof.” It’s safe to say that it didn’t help his legacy. Neither did Moyer leaving just three years of recordings to that name, almost always as a sideman in big bands led by Joe Candullo, Sam Lanin and Fred Rich and without much room to impress jazz posterity.
Which is the why “The Stampede” is such an ear opener:
That’s Moyer on mellophone, soprano saxophone and bass clarinet, making his own hot solo vehicle out of a Fletcher Henderson tune that already scorches in its usual big band settings. Moyer refashions the call and response introduction on mellophone, paring it down to a punchy, descending riff. He then elasticizes the main theme with syncopation and his wailing soprano sax. His bass clarinet won’t endanger Eric Dolphy’s status as a pioneer on the instrument but still adds it own distinct color and burbling energy.
Taken from the three sessions by Ken Moyer’s Novelty Trio, “The Stampede” is one of six sides featuring Moyer accompanied by just piano, drums and some very spare violin. Moyer plays all of the instruments on “Stampede” plus alto saxophone and clarinet throughout these sessions. There is a certain novelty to his playing so many instruments, and he does engage in some gaspipe clarinet and proto-Boots Randolph sax on other sides. Yet the doubling on “The Stampede” seems to be more a matter of creativity than gimmick: he plays all of these instruments well and creates exciting, interesting, not simply “goofy” music with them.
The format for each session seems to be one hot number coupled with a slightly more novelty-based one. “Mellophone Stomp,” written by Moyer and seemingly based on “Tiger Rag,” is the other jazz tune on the other two sessions and it also avoids musical shtick (if not reaching the same level of excitement):
Tracks for horn plus rhythm from this period are welcome opportunities to hear how soloists during the so-called rise of the jazz soloist handled improvisation outside of collective ensembles or not sandwiched between band sections. “The Stampede” may or may not be Moyer’s best solo on record (I’d say so but I’m no Moyeranic, or even Moyerphile). It is definitely one of his longest solos, highlighting a unique multi-instrumentalist at play in a looser jazz setting. It’s interesting to speculate on the results of further Trio sessions or ones with a better rhythm section (perhaps keeping Ray Bauduc on drums but with a livelier pianist than Moyer’s boss Fred Rich).
As it stands, Lord’s jazz discography lists Moyer’s last recording in December 1926, about a month after his last Trio session. Pianist Charlie LaVere reports that by 1932 Moyer was leading a band around Oklahoma City. Subsequent newspaper clippings show that Moyer’s territory band kept busy for several years in Texas, with gigs in Kentucky, Arkansas, New Orleans and Kansas City. By that time, he was simply “Ken Moyer” and it’s a small wonder why. Would anyone want to be a goof forever?