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?
Longtime readers of this blog (both of them) have probably noticed the wealth of fan nonfiction devoted to clarinetist Don Murray. Dead by the age of twenty-
sixfour, often overshadowed by his friend and fellow young talent cut tragically short Bix Beiderbecke and with a modestly-sized discography to his name, Murray is both a personal favorite and nowhere near overexposure in the history books.
Murray’s legacy is also complicated by a lot of commercial sessions that probably paid his rent but often didn’t leave room for improvisation. Everyone (or at least the 0.5% of the planet who enjoy hot jazz) knows that it is Murray cascading out of the opening stop chord on “Sorry” under Bix Beiderbecke’s leadership. It takes some patience to find his solo on “What A Wonderful Wedding That Will Be”:
Of course, it’s worth digging if you just like Murray, but his music is worth the effort. The repetition of the first eight bars after the bridge means he was either bored with the tune or simply liked those phrases. Either way, Murray’s clarinet (as well as Red Nichols’s squeezing and pecking on trumpet) adds rhythmic and technical interest to this affair. Murray did not get to stretch out nearly as much on commercial sides but they provide some of his most elusive and rewarding work.
It’s a pity the obbligato saxophone behind the vocal isn’t better recorded; it also gets some things done musically and it might well be Murray. Murray’s tenor on “Marvelous” is much easier to hear and the title might as well refer to Murray:
The rhythmic intensity of this side immediately skyrockets upon his entrance, with Murray’s triplets and hill-and-dale phrases injecting some hot virtuosity into a peppy but otherwise straightforward performance. Murray’s gauzy tone on tenor (heard here as well as on “Blue River” with Jean Goldkette) is similar to his light-toned baritone, while he kept a bright, open sound on both clarinet and alto saxophone.
It is likely Murray’s alto saxophone on the first chorus bridge of “Feelin’ Good” and possibly his clarinet on the eight-bar improvised bridge of the last chorus. The opening squeal is uncharacteristic but the tumbling arpeggios are pure Murray:
That alto’s rhythmic phrasing, especially of eighth notes, and tone are similar to the alto on “Just Like A Melody Out Of The Sky”:
Murray seems to have made a specialty out of these rhythmic paraphrases of non-refrain sections, such as the final bridge on “I’m Ridin’ To Glory” or his gorgeous texture and rhythmic recasting of the verse on baritone for ‘”Tain’t So, Honey, Tain’t So”:
The two records with Joe Venuti’s band are much jazzier charts that still don’t give Murray much spotlight. It’s easy to lament the infrequency or brevity of Murray’s solos (especially after, for example, you might have isolated the 240 or so records that Murray appears on and listened and re-listened to every solo, obbligato, ensemble descant and straight lead he ever waxed). Yet these records also demonstrate a musician working within constraints, responding to and enhancing a musical environment much different from out-and-out jazz settings. “Somebody Lied About Me” barely gives Murray ten seconds of audible space on clarinet and he still manages to make it his own:
“Maybe, Who Knows?” is practically a feature for Murray. He plays clarinet around the ensemble on the first chorus, switches to baritone for a swinging lead on the bridge, answers Ted Lewis’s vocals back on his clarinet and then improvises on the last bridge:
Not just any section man could pull it all off with the same tone, technique, style or those tasteful, spurring ornaments at end of the band’s phrases. I’m still hopeful that someone will unearth recordings of Don Murray playing in a trio a la Jimmy Lytell but, in the meantime, these records do very well on their own terms. There may not be much jazz in them, and some of it may not even be classified as “jazz,” but it is creative, confident and individual music.
The following began when a friend joked about jotting down my favorite obscure players. Before I knew it, unsung section men, underappreciated doublers, under-recorded causes that I wish I could hear more of and people I wish had recorded together came to mind, and the list of players turned into a list of bands.
The particular sizes of these bands always seemed to me like the most flexible, transparent ones for arranged jazz. More of a large combination than a big band in the current sense of the term, sections are small enough to form their own miniature ensembles, or chamber groups, that allow each player’s voice to blend, contrast or color the whole even in the tightest blend. Jazz has always focused on individuality of tone, and a band of eight to ten musicians allows massed effects while never burying anyone’s timbre.
Why are there no banjoists or guitarists? I’m not good at picking them. This is an entirely personal, probably ignorant list, so take it with a grain of salt, ideally enjoy it and let me know if you’ve got your own dream band. Here goes…
trumpet 1: Phil Napoleon
trumpet 2: Tom Morris
trombone: Charlie Irvis
clarinet, soprano saxophone and alto sax: Buster Bailey
tenor and c-melody saxophones: Jack Pettis
piano: Arthur Schutt
tuba and string bass: Joe Tarto
drums: Chauncey Morehouse
Phil Napoleon’s clean, well-balanced sound and crisp placement of notes made him (as another friend put it) born to play on acoustic records. The thought of contemporary Tom Morris’s wa-wa mute commenting under and around Napoleon’s open lead or the two New Yorkers coming up with their own take on the Creole Jazz Band’s two-horn breaks is a perfect example of a collaboration that time and social politics now leave to the imagination. Buster Bailey and Jack Pettis are simply two of my favorite reed players, both intense in solos, stirring in collectively improvised ensembles and more than capable on written parts. The double-sax format in this band (heard on records by the early Fletcher Henderson band, Clarence Williams’s combos and more recently by the Fat Babies) was a great sound that unfortunately faded as bands got bigger.
Charlie Irvis is another straightforward, big-toned, pre-Teagarden and non-Mole trombonist from the acoustic era with a knack for adding slurs, fills and bass to ensembles. The rhythm section swung the Georgians hard through acoustically recorded surfaces, with Chauncey Morehouse especially gifted at using a variety of engineer-approved auxillary percussion to punctuate ensembles. This band would sound amazing on a Gennett 78 from around 1923.
trumpets: Bill Moore and Bobby Stark
trombone: Charlie Green
lead alto sax: Joe Poston
clarinet, alto 2 and baritone sax: Don Murray
tenor sax and clarinet: Woody Walder
piano: Frank Signorelli
string bass: Steve Brown
drums: Kaiser Marshall
This rhythm section of not-quite “unknown” nor “famous” players would have been a meeting of New Orleans (Brown) and New York (Signorelli and Marshall), as well as different idioms within those geo-musical associations. History’s loss again, since it’s easy and exciting to imagine Brown’s bass slaps and Marshall’s cymbal crashes kicking behind the ensemble. Signorelli may or may not have broke any historical ground but he laid plenty of musical foundation in some of the best jazz groups on record. He’d even get to solo here.
It’s just fun to think of lithe-toned, chattering Bill “The Hot Hawaiian” Moore trading fours with Bobby Stark, who plays with the fire and speed of a Jazz Age Roy Eldridge (and, in my humble opinion, a more vocal quality than fleet-fingered Jabbo Smith). Add in Charlie Green’s trombone bottoming out the brass parts and contributing gutty fills around the ensemble and you have a real exercise in contrasts. The same goes for Don Murray’s technical wizardry on clarinet and light-toned baritone paired with Woody Walder’s Southwestern, blues-soaked style on both clarinet and tenor sax; imagine the duets these two might play! Joe Poston’s bright, flexible alto would be an ideal voice to tie this or any other section together.
trumpet 1: Joe Smith
trumpet 2: R.Q. Dickerson
mellophone, clarinet, soprano and alto sax: Goof Moyer
lead alto: Gil Rodin
clarinet, alto 2 and baritone sax: Don Murray
tenor sax and clarinet: Prince Robinson
piano: Irving Brodsky
tuba: Cyrus St. Clair
drums: Dillon Ober
Joe Smith’s sweet tone and restrained style distinguished him from his more extroverted contemporaries, making him Fletcher Henderson’s first-call trumpeter. RQ Dickerson was a force of nature, blasting and moaning with the St. Louis-bred Missourians. These two might be the oddest couple on the list.
Its most under-appreciated musician (which is really saying something here) might be Gil Rodin. Rarely if ever getting to solo, Rodin diligently led Ben Pollack’s sax section band during the band’s glory years. His rich yet gauzy alto always seemed like a predecessor to Hymie Schertzer’s transparent lead in fellow Pollack alumnus Benny Goodman’s swing big band. Maybe Goodman the sideman already had an idea of what Goodman the bandleader might want in a sax section? Filling out the section, Don Murray is back and Prince Robinson handles third sax. Robinson combined some of Coleman Hawkins’s influence into his own more declaratory, at times brass-like, approach to tenor sax.
The multitalented Ken “Goof Moyer” could not only add a unique color reading trombone parts on his mellophone, but punchy solos on that instrument as well as several others. The rhythm section is another assembly of players who were much more than dutiful, often spurring, never distracting and never together. This band would’ve been something to hear, perhaps on a Victor 78 from around 1928, or after hours following a battle of the bands.
trumpet 1: Leonard Davis
trumpet 2: Ed Allen
trombone: George Brunies
lead alto sax, clarinet and violin: Darnell Howard
clarinet, alto 2 and soprano sax: Buster Bailey
tenor sax and flute: Larry Binyon
clarinet, tenor and baritone saxes: Don Murray
piano: Bob Zurke
bass: Artie Shapiro
drums: George Stafford
This reed section alone could be a band in itself. Larry Binyon is another unsung studio player who could play any piece of music on nearly any instrument with some of the best bands on records who no one thought to interview. Darnell Howard’s roots go all the way back to playing violin with WC Handy, through saxophone with King Oliver and Earl Hines to some gritty clarinet quartets with Don Ewell. Bailey and Murray are there not just because they are my top two clarinetists but because of their respective doubling abilities. Bailey played soprano when Clarence Williams couldn’t get Sidney Bechet, but always seemed worth another turn on the instrument. My permutation is rusty, but this setup alone generates 54 combinations of instruments, 192 if you count duos, trios and solos.
Bob Zurke’s wild contrapuntal flurries supported by the sensitive yet swinging Artie Shapiro and woefully under-recorded George Stafford was way more likely at a jam session than a recording studio. It just goes to show how much is left off the record. Ditto for Stafford’s colleague in the Charlie Johnson band Leonard “Ham” Davis, who never got as much airtime as his incisive lead with Eddie’s Hot Shots earned him. Ed Allen received much more attention as a musician on Clarence Williams’s payroll, playing clean leads, driving ensemble ones, passionate blues, vocally-conceived muted solos, Armstrong-tinged licks and just about anything else the imaginative Williams asked for. I love the thought of George Brunies’s big, foggy New Orleans tailgate trombone trading choruses with these two St Louis trumpeters. Sometimes thought is all we’re left with!
After ninety years and a few musical revolutions, it might seem like The Jim-Dandies were just waiting for other musicians to arrive and teach them how to “really” swing:
History shows that other musicians did arrive, in this case from the south, the midwest and most prominently New Orleans, musicians who played with greater liberty and a more relaxed beat than the Dandies. “Shake That Thing” and “Charleston Geechie Dance” were recorded almost right in the middle of the twenties (on October 24, 1925). Even a superficial comparison with recordings made the same month by Louis Armstrong with his fellow New Orleanian Clarence Williams or by the Palledo Orchestra of St. Louis give an idea of what was on the historical docket:
The Dandies are far removed from the airy polyphony of traditional New Orleans bands, the crisp, bluesy ragtime-infused sound of many southwestern bands or the bravura modernism that Armstrong was already unleashing upon New York. Trumpeter Seymour Irick, a South Carolinian transplant based in New York City, reed player Percy Glascoe, a Baltimore-born bandleader plus Manhattan sideman and pianist/leader Lemuel Fowler (who apparently spent most of his life and career in New York) might instead represent what Louis Metcalf meant by “eastern” style:
When I joined Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, about 1925, the men in the band were always fighting about which was the better style: eastern or western. When I say “western,” I mean everything that came out of New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City and places like that. The western style was more open…open horns and running chords and running changes. With Ellington, it was the new men like myself [who played in St. Louis], Johnny Hodges and [New Orleans native Barney] Bigard against guys like Bubber Miley and Tricky Sam Nanton [both of whom grew up in New York City]. They were playing wah-wah music with plungers and things.
It is unclear why Boston-born Hodges is included with the “western” contingent, but it could have to do with the saxophonist’s tutelage under New Orleans expatriate Sidney Bechet. King Oliver was praised for his mute technique going back to his days in the Crescent City, which Garvin Bushell cited as an influence on Miley, so the association between “eastern” style and mutes is also uncertain. Just how mutes were actually used probably marks the difference between Oliver, Miley and Metcalf’s former boss in St. Louis, Charlie Creath, more than regional demarcations.
Labels can lose as much as they catch. Nonetheless, “Shake That Thing” does lack the open horns and chordal improvisation Metcalf describes as already overtaking New York. Irick and Glascoe rely almost entirely upon melodic paraphrase rather than improvisational reinvention, and Irick certainly isn’t too hip to “wah-wah.” Fowler’s piano and Richard Ward’s percussion are spurring but dutiful accompaniment. The whole feel is rhythmically tense rather relaxed, the band playing with the beat and bar lines rather than between them.
The Jim-Dandies also play with absolute conviction. The art of subtle but creative paraphrase generates its own type of excitement, as well as the impression that harmonic exploration is simply not a priority. Rhythmic variation is a priority, just one based in a sense of intensity rather than relaxation. Setting aside what we might now expect jazz to sound like, none of these players needed any out-of-towners to show them how to play hot. The musical DNA of New Orleans and Kansas City is now so deeply rooted in jazz that these records might just be a form of retroactive avant-garde!
Ear witnesses to the twenties recount lengthy jam sessions, beyond the reach of period technology, under the radar of that era’s commercially oriented record companies and now just stories about what the musicians “really” sounded like. It makes a record like The Jim-Dandies’ “Shake That Thing” something of an anomaly as well as an echo:
This is the loosest of the (issued) quartet sides organized by pianist, composer and mystery man Lemuel Fowler. Fowler’s other records with trumpet, clarinet, piano and drums for the well-known Columbia label make room for improvisation between arranged sections; some passages even sound like stripped-down section parts for a big band. “Shake That Thing,” on the budget Harmony label, consists almost entirely of trumpeter Seymour Irick and clarinetist/saxophonist Percy Glascoe trading solo statements.
Those solos work off melodic embellishment rather than complete reinvention of Papa Charlie Jackson’s song. The stamp of individuality might be a sudden but brief departure from the tune, for example Glascoe’s double-time sleight of hand on the first chorus, slight but signature paraphrase like Irick alternating staccato pecking with muted cries, or simply ripping up to an introductory phrase, bending a pitch, widening or narrowing vibrato, playing two notes in place of one or anything else from the arsenal of inflections that a jazz musician could use to instantly sign their name to a tune. Rhythmic recasting also allows them to have their way with the song without having to toss out its melody (and one can almost hear dance band arrangers scribbling things down to craft some snappy part for a brass section or clarinet trio). Irick switching between open and muted sounds and Glascoe doubling soprano saxophone and clarinet on the same record add another layer of variety, all the more remarkable considering it unfolds over just three minutes.
This unrelenting ornamentation is far removed from the elaborate improvisational flights now associated with jam sessions or jazz in general. The opportunity/challenge for these players seems to have been making the tune theirs while keeping it up front, perhaps as much for themselves as the audience. It’s easy to imagine this type of dialog taking place after a venue’s doors have closed, with the musicians sticking around to play for one another and the variations continuing to all hours of the night and into the morning, with excitement building from a musician’s ability to say something original with just part, or even all of, the song. In some way that makes a tidy (if admittedly reductionist) metaphor for jazz itself.
Bandleader Paul Biese enjoyed critical as well as popular acclaim in Jazz Age Chicago and is now known to only the most diehard period aficionados. Such is life for many popular musicians. Yet Biese’s records provide an insightful, powerfully individual snapshot of the transition from popular music of the teens to jazz’s infiltration into the mainstream during the twenties.
The aptly-titled “Fast Asleep In Poppy Land” is heroin-speed instrumental ragtime, alluding to the cacophonous collective interplay of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, only without much improvisation and a hard-edged, urban take on the “nut jazz” no doubt all around Biese and his sidemen. Biese’s tenor saxophone moans on top of, through and all over the band, probably as much due to his vicinity to the recording horn as his tone and billing (he was the leader, after all):
Trumpeter Harry “Rags” Vrooman is especially interesting. He never plays a traditional “Dixieland” lead trumpet role, instead eliding the tune proper into a wailing, three-note ascending phrase alongside Biese, or playing double-time obbligato on “Bo-La-Bo” and decoration behind (!) Lloyd Barber’s trombone (!) for “Yellow Dog Blues”:
Vrooman’s sound, especially on “Dardanella,” hint at his possibly having heard the lift that New Orleans import Freddie Keppard gave bands with a couple of well-placed blasts:
Biese’s “Dardanella,” with Vrooman blasting out of the familiar ostinato and the leader booting like he’d be right at home in a rhythm and blues combo thirty years later, makes Ben Selvin’s peppy multi-million selling record of the tune seem unequivocally tame. Regional styles, bouncy but somewhat buttoned-up New York versus hardboiled Chicago, can already be detected at this point.
Like their Chicago counterparts in Isham Jones’s band, there’s a sense of experimentation with instrumental roles and small group textures in Biese’s group. The leader tries out different saxophone registers for varied effects. The rattle and clang of Lou Goldwasser’s rag-a-jazz drumming and Arnold Johnson’s rapid-fire piano add ferocious drive as well as color. Ralph Williams’s banjo, which jazz historian Mark Berresford has described as a typically Chicagoan blend of melody and rhythm, even adds some zither-like tremolos for a percussive effect on “Yellow Dog Blues.”
Contemporary music history taxonomy may have a hard time pigeonholing Biese’s music, and it’s easy to simply write it off “not jazz,” but its sheer energy, confidence and personality reveal more than just transitional commercial efforts. This was a band with its own voice, easy to dance to, fascinating to listen to and frustratingly absent from most reissues.