Ear witnesses insist that King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band had to be heard live to be believed, leaving the thirty-seven extant sides by the band doomed to fall short of historical imagination. Bill Johnson is bass-less, Baby Dodds (more than) makes do with a stripped-down kit and the ensemble balances can sometimes turn frustratingly lopsided. Still, if that’s “all we get,” it could be far worse; the group’s easygoing swing and earthy yet graceful polyphony continue to proselytize for New Orleans jazz. Next to Johnny Dodds’s high-flying clarinet cutting through all of that well-worn shellac, the twin cornets of Oliver and young Louis Armstrong are often the main attraction:
Aside from Oliver wanting the incredible talent of Armstrong in his band, a second cornet allows unison parts, harmonies, counterpoint, trading the lead, call and response, concerted breaks and a range of colors and textures, all within a uniform timbre that opens up subtle gradations of personal tone. Without taking anything away from today’s five-person trumpet sections, Oliver and Armstrong’s miniature brass section attained an ideal balance between arrangement and improvisation, preparation and spontaneity, a unique power and swing that made it famous in its day and beyond.
Creative as well as commercial impulses were bound to inspire others to take something as seemingly simple as two trumpets playing together and make it their own. Armstrong joined the KOCJB in the summer of 1922. By October of the same year, Frank Westphal’s trumpet team is showing off a stop-time duet on “She’s A Mean Job” (though there might be a trombone in the stack too):
Their syncopated break and subsequent variations on it momentarily take the record in a different direction. The rhythm gets more intense while the texture gets lighter, a sort of hot concerto grosso in the middle of Westphal’s big band.
It is possible that Westphal and his sidemen visited the Lincoln Gardens to check out Oliver’s band and crib a few ideas. Yet in “February of 1922, several months before Armstrong joined Oliver, Westphal’s band waxed “That Barkin’ Dog” and featuring its own hot trumpet routine:
It is unclear if trumpeters Charles Burns and Austyn Edward or the arranger were deliberately trying to imitate Oliver’s band. The slightly clipped articulation and shaking vibrato also show traces of Freddie Keppard. Whoever they were listening to, the concluding ride-out remains a hot and clever piece of arranging and performance. The title of this track portends animal onomatopoeia but it instead immediately settles into a medium-tempo, proudly two-beat, fancy and funky early twenties stomp that likely left dancers eager for more.
Hot trumpet duets may seem like the inevitable result of the typical size of bands at the time, with their configuration of two trumpets, one trombone, three saxophones and rhythm section. As another commentator pointed out, the KOCJB was itself only two additional reeds short of being a typical twenties tentet. Hearing two trumpets play hot might not seem like a stylistic event, unless it happens to be a few years later, out in Texas, under Lloyd Finlay’s direction:
Hot trumpet sections spring up throughout all three sessions by this obscure territory band. It’s a musical monument to the incredible cross-pollination between local musical idioms, a time before national dissemination of music could be taken for granted and there were still distinct local traditions that could absorb others, like this group of European American musicians clearly learning from Southern expatriate African American musicians in Chicago. “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” is a telling example: things start out unpromising but pick up as soon as the trumpets join in. The parts aren’t in lockstep but closer to heterophony, with just enough slack between them to add depth and spontaneity. It also sounds like one of the brass players might be muted, adding yet another layer.
A year later in New York, Duke Ellington’s trumpets sound even closer to the King Oliver model:
The syncopation and vocalized inflection point back to the Oliver band while the alternation between open and closed bells has a distinctly Ellingtonian color: darker, more atmospheric than earthy and more incisive. Ellington was a musical sponge savvy enough to synthesize ideas from across several jazz communities and was bound to draw inspiration from hearing the Oliver band (live or on record). Gunther Schuller singled out this section as a deliberate and poor imitation of the KOCJB’s hot trumpet duets, but that description seems a little unfair to Ellington or trumpeters Harry Cooper and Leroy Rutledge. This writer is going to humbly disagree with Schuller’s analysis and suggest that the trumpets bursting in right after Sonny Greer’s comparatively understated vocal actually reignite the side, providing a semi-improvised variation on the tune proper and building tension before the full band comes back in.
Critics and historians have completely ignored Hoagy Carmichael’s trumpet section on “Friday Night,” cut one year later than the Ellington side and coming across like a sock time rendition of the KOCJB sound:
[Anybody got a clip of this one they care to share with me?]
Carmichael played cornet on a few sessions in addition to his usual role as a pianist. Byron Smart was the sole cornet on several sides with Emil Seidel, meaning he would have been able to hold down the trumpet chair on this Carmichael session on his own. Yet Carmichael adds his horn alongside that of Smart for this date, indicating a specific sound that he wanted for the tune. This was not just a happenstance of instrumentation but a deliberate musical choice that opened up new possibilities.
As for the line between sincere tribute, outright imitation or shameful knockoff, descriptions like Schuller’s appear throughout jazz criticism, right back to accusations (by others and not by this writer) that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was playing a crude, commercialized caricature of “real” New Orleans jazz. Suffice it to say that there is little reason to expect every jazz band recorded during the twenties to sound like a handful of musicians from New Orleans at that time (or every musician playing now to sound like the Blue Note catalog circa 1961). If none of these groups had ever even heard of King Oliver, let alone focused on his cornet parts, their shared efforts would be all the more remarkable. In the right musical hands, two of the same instrument can make a world of difference!