Jimmy Dorsey Tells His Story

In Lost Chords (Oxford, 2001), Richard M. Sudhalter describes a backstage scene from a 1976 Paul Whiteman commemoration that treads the line between heartfelt veneration and chest-beating swagger:

[S]axophonists Al Gallodoro (a Whiteman alumnus), Johnny Mince (soloist with Tommy Dorsey’s 1930s orchestra), and Eddie Barefield (star of the Cab Calloway and Chick Webb bands) astonished fellow-bandsmen by reeling off [Jimmy Dorsey’s full chorus solo from Whiteman’s 1927 “Sensation Stomp”] from memory, in faultless unison. “Why, of course everybody picked up on that one,” was Barefield’s explanation…”

Judging from Dorsey’s original solo [at about 1:27 on the following clip] “everyone” also had a razor sharp ear, not to mention several hours to practice.  This one couldn’t have been easy to transcribe:

Sudhalter goes on to describe Dorsey’s solo as “a model of fleet, assured playing, full of swooping, hill-and-dale phrases, nimble ‘false fingering,’ and other tricks of the saxophonist’s trade.”  Between the manic starts and stops and relentless instrumental shifts that comprise “Sensation Stomp,” unbridling Dorsey’s technique over a steady, racing tempo also provides the perfect sense of balance on this chart. For contemporary listeners, Dorsey’s creamy alto may sound quaint next to the tangier timbres of post-Bird saxophonists, and his jittery arpeggios point to the influence of Rudy Wiedoeft and other classically trained sax virtuosos from outside of jazz.

Did Lester Young seem like the type to get caught up in labels?

On the other hand the false fingerings that Dorsey uses at 1:35 would become a mainstay of tenor saxophonist and bop forefather Lester Young when he began to record in the early thirties.  By playing the same note but using different fingerings, saxophonists can alter the pitch of the note ever so slightly, causing it to wax and wane in the listener’s ear. Dorsey’s false fingering builds up tension until the release of a somersaulting break (that manages to work in still more false fingerings).

Young penned the phrase “tell a story” to describe the best improvisers, and Dorsey’s mix of speed and structure makes for a gripping narrative.  Yet we know that Dorsey worked out this solo in advance, first playing it on Red Nichols’ recording of “That’s No Bargain” the year before.  Putting aside the fact that many musicians from this time (including Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins) similarly “routined” their solos, can we still classify Dorsey’s “party-piece” solo a work of jazz?

Gallodoro, Mince, Barefield and their Dorsey-loving colleagues didn’t seem to care either way.  Improvised or not, they were impressed enough to recall the solo several decades later.  Legendary saxophonist and bona fide jazz soloist Benny Carter didn’t seem to care when he “borrowed” Dorsey’s solo, note for note, on his 1936 recording of “Tiger Rag” with his Swing Quartet.  Several weeks ago I was blessed and blown away by the sound of Vince Giordano’s reed section bending and vaulting in unison over Dorsey’s solo, with the Nighthawk’s crisp beat booting Dorsey’s legacy into the next millennium.  Critics and academics can debate improvisation as a benchmark for jazz.  Apparently, the musicians made up their minds several years ago.

I haven’t done the research to confirm whether Jimmy Dorsey improvised his clarinet work on “Buddy’s Habits” with Red Nichols.  I did spend several hours trying to get his tumbling runs under my fingers.  Either way, I’ve remained hooked since I first heard this side:

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3 thoughts on “Jimmy Dorsey Tells His Story

  1. Having attempted Dorsey’s Tiger Rag solo on many occasions, I can safely say it is more of a challenge to play it exactly as he did than it is to vary it!

    Great blog!

    • M. Figg says:

      Ha! That is a great insight, Michael. Dorsey’s originality keeps impressing me. Glad you are enjoying the blog, and thanks for reading!

  2. […] much in a solo implies planning, and worse, imitation. Creating something entirely original from an admired colleague’s utterances never seems as personal when compared to offering something totally […]

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